Health care bargaining for school employees is once again off to a rocky start.
Union and school board representatives, in talks since this spring, are now headed to fact-finding after mediation last week left several matters unresolved.
“There's really a gulf between us on the finances,” said Will Adams, an elementary school teacher in Hardwick and a spokesperson for union negotiators.
A single statewide contract has governed health insurance for all Vermont school employees since the start of 2021, and that two-year deal expires at the end of 2022. Negotiating the previous contract was contentious, too, ending in arbitration — and a win for employees.
Both parties have agreed the next contract, which will cover about 40,000 Vermonters, should last three years. But on most other matters that determine who should shoulder the ever-growing cost of health care, the union and school boards remain far apart.
Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a former South Burlington school board member who is leading negotiations on the employer side, said the two parties began negotiations close to $50 million apart. The union’s initial proposal would have cost school districts roughly $18 million extra more than the status quo, she said. School boards, meanwhile, entered into talks with an offer that would see employees collectively pay about $30 million more than they do now.
The previous health care contract further strained school budgets, Fitzgerald said, and school boards feel they need to claw back some savings.
“We're really looking at some rebalancing, from that standpoint, and keeping the benefits to the point where we still believe they're very competitive and can attract and retain talent,” Fitzgerald said.
Both union and school board negotiators have moved closer to the middle since a mediation session last week, Fitzgerald said, but an updated cost analysis was not immediately available. Adams said he couldn’t confirm Fitzgerald’s estimates regarding the gap in negotiations but agreed the two sides had a “very different view of how health insurance should be paid for.”
“After the most difficult school year that anybody can possibly remember, coming out of a pandemic — it's just really disappointing that they are trying to limit access to health care and make it more expensive for public school employees,” Adams said.
A key point of contention is the Vermont-NEA’s proposal to implement income-sensitized premium cost-sharing, a longtime practice in many local contracts, as a statewide standard.
The union would like all employees making less than $35,000 to pay no more than 12% of the premium. Those making more than $35,000 but less than $70,000 would pay no more than 16%, and the highest earners would pay 18%.
The school boards have pitched a proposal that would see all licensed staff — mostly teachers — increase their contributions 2% over the life of the contract. Currently they pay 20%.
Support staff, meanwhile, whose contribution levels currently vary, would gradually get to an 80/20 cost split by the end of 2025. The employer side also wants workers to take on an additional 1% contribution if premiums go up by more than 10%.
Both sides are ratcheting up pressure. In an op-ed submitted to local media, Vermont School Boards Association president Neil Odell called the union’s demands “exorbitant” and warned that they would divert millions away from “school programs, student services, transportation and other activities.” The union has submitted a petition signed by more than 2,500 educators and supporters to the school board’s association.
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