Potential changes to workers' health insurance contributions are emerging as a flashpoint in negotiations on a new agreement between Dining Services workers and the University ahead of an Oct. 12 deadline, when their current work contract expires.
The nature of proposed changes — which may also include modifications to retirement benefits for new hires and, workers say, a general wage freeze — remains uncertain and continues to be shaped by negotiations, which will resume on Friday.
Roxana Rivera, chief negotiator for the Service Employees International Union, Local 615 — which represents all of the roughly 200 Dining Services employees — said she will have daily meetings with the University's Director of Labor Relations Joseph Sarno.
"Management is proposing one of the biggest takeaways ever," Rivera said, referring to a University proposal that would require some workers to contribute more of their pay to their health insurance. "They want to save costs — it's not about justice or fairness."
Under the current health insurance payment system, each BDS worker pays 6 percent of his health care premium. The University's proposal would replace that system with a "sliding scale," in which workers would contribute according to their salary. The proposed system would require a contribution of 16.5 percent for the highest paid employees.
Mark Nickel, the University's director of communications, said Brown is not cutting back on health benefits and is merely seeking more flexibility in an increasingly expensive cost sector. Sarno, answering a reporter's inquiry through Nickel, declined to comment on the negotiations himself.
Nickel said most other University employees, including faculty and administrators, already pay for health insurance on a sliding scale according to salary. "This is the best possible coverage in the most efficient way," he said. "Sixty-five percent of union workers would end up paying less."
Dining Services workers, SEIU members and various student groups are planning to stage a rally on the Main Green at 4 p.m. today to protest the proposed changes to health care contribution rules.
Rivera said the University was trying to cut costs by bringing up the same issues that were discussed during the last contract negotiation, in 2006. But this time, she said, it is falsely trying to excuse the proposed contract changes as a necessary burden in the face of a recession and a bruised endowment.
"It's disingenuous to say it's solely for the sake of the endowment," she said. "How much money does it save them compared to the impact (the change in health insurance payments) will have on these employees and their families?"
Brown's roughly $2 billion endowment lost more than $700 million in the 12 months ending in June and is pursuing what will be a second round of budget cuts this fall.
The Student Labor Alliance, which has spearheaded today's planned rally in support of the workers, also accused the University of using the pretext of financial difficulties to defend proposals that will ultimately hurt workers.
Mark Morales '10, a member of the SLA, said the University should agree not to change the contribution plans "even if it requires a very small loss in the endowment."
"We think that's what the University should do, and set an example," he said. "Everyone is suffering, and it's not going to help if we make health care even less affordable."
Nickel said the University was not cutting back on benefits without good reason, adding that the University needs "flexibility" in structuring its costs.
"The University does want to provide its employees with good wages and good benefits," he said.
Among the employees, raw feelings about the contract negotiations are rampant.
"For us to shoulder a huge health insurance increase would be painful," said Rabbit Hoffinger, first cook at the Sharpe Refectory and a member of the union's bargaining committee. "It's really not the time for some of us to lose 10 percent of our paycheck."
He added that there is very little disparity among Dining Services workers' salaries, and that only minor savings would be gained by introducing a sliding scale.
Marc Barsamian, cook's helper at the Refectory, said an increase in health care costs would offset any kind of salary benefit. "If I get a promotion, but they're going to increase my health care at the same time — what is the incentive?" he said.
Edward Miller, adjunct associate professor of public policy who teaches an undergraduate-level class about health policy, said the possible results of linking health insurance payments to a sliding scale are numerous and depend on context.
"One possibility is that a lot of people at the lower end will not be paying significantly less," he said, "while others may have to pay significantly more for the coverage."
However, the hikes in the price of health premiums, combined with Brown's endowment losses, have driven the University to seek cost-cutting measures. "Brown is never going to give up health insurance," he said.
The fierce debate, he added — emphasizing that he did not want to choose sides in the negotiations — is symptomatic of the national one.
Other unionized University employees, including Facilities Management and Library workers, currently pay a flat rate of 6 and 8 percent toward health insurance, respectively, according to Karen McAninch '74, the business agent for the United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island, which represents workers in those divisions.
In addition to the consternation surrounding payments to health insurance, the University is proposing a change in retirement benefits for new hires. The proposed change in benefits, according to Nickel, would replace the existing defined-benefit plan with a defined-contribution plan. "It's a portable benefit — you don't have to retire from the University," he said. "It also allows employees who wish to increase their contributions to do so."
Rivera described that proposal as a "dramatic decrease" that would hurt all future hires.
Rivera also said the possibility of an across-the-board wage freeze has been floated, which the University "didn't completely rule out."
Nickel said he had not heard of any potential wage freeze. "There is no particular model on the table yet," he said.