There is no question that Brown could use more money. Over the past several weeks, The Herald has reported huge losses in the endowment, suspension of scholarships and the removal of academic support programs. But regardless of the financial state of the University, the chance to save money is no excuse to make health care less accessible to the workers who make our campus run.
The contract for Brown Dining Services workers expires next week, and the University has proposed changes in the insurance system to achieve "flexibility" in structuring costs. Under the current contract, BDS employees pay 6 percent of their health insurance premiums. If the University gets its way, that system will move to a "sliding scale," with higher-paid workers paying a higher share of their insurance costs.
A sliding scale system is already in place for non-union employees, and the University maintains that the proposed changes to the BDS contract are a matter of consistency and fairness. A spokesperson for the University also told The Herald that such a system eases the burden on the lowest-paid workers and protects them against rising national health care costs.
But BDS workers are not so sure. At a protest this week, union members declared that BDS employees "have affordable health care, and Brown wants to change that." Food service workers at the rally expressed worries that they would have to cut back and make difficult choices in order to pay for medication. They condemned the University for making them pay for losses in the endowment. The University says the measure has nothing to do with the endowment, and that similar changes had been proposed before the economy collapsed.
There are misunderstandings on both sides of the bargaining table, and it is up to Brown to straighten them out. If the sliding scale will really benefit BDS workers, the University must make those benefits more transparent, outlining the effects for employees at each end of the pay spectrum. If it is really a matter of fairness, the University should renegotiate contracts with library and facilities management employees as well.
Whatever the case, the University must realize that its endowment is not the only fund feeling the effects of the economic crisis. Dining services workers and all the other employees who keep our campus running have surely taken a hit as well. As the University negotiates a new contract with BDS, we hope they will remember that these are hard times. Workers are especially vulnerable right now, and the University must take extra measures to ensure that changes to the insurance system do not leave employees digging into their savings.
Given the economy, the University could certainly use some more flexibility in structuring costs. But BDS workers probably need that flexibility more than Brown does. We hope officials keep this in mind when they sit down at the bargaining table next week.
Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board.