If you sign a contract, you have to follow the contract. Seems simple, right? Yet the University of California seems to have a problem understanding the need to adhere to the contract it signed with UC postdoctoral scholars.
My union, UAW Local 5810, represents more than 6,000 postdoctoral scholars at the university — and our members do valuable research that brings in billions of dollars in grants and contracts for the university each year.
Three years ago, we signed a contract with the university that included health care benefits comparable to what other UC employees receive. The contract stipulates that the postdoctoral scholar pays a small portion of the monthly premium, and the university pays the rest.
Unfortunately, a number of our members were given incorrect information, such as being told that health care was not part of their employment package or that they had to pay both the university’s and the scholar’s portions. These false statements were even more egregious because most of the affected workers are recent immigrants.
We brought this to the university’s attention more than a year ago and were told the policy was being changed so that all postdoctoral scholars could access the health plan at the correct rates. But we found out recently that new employees are still being given misleading information and being told they do not qualify for coverage.
One international postdoctoral scholar was told health benefits for herself, her partner and their young child would cost “about $1400” per month, although our contract clearly states that the scholar’s share of the plan should be just more than $40 per month. Keep in mind that the starting minimum salary for a postdoctoral scholar is $42,000 per year, or $3,500 per month before taxes and rent. These continued contract violations are outrageous and unacceptable.
We are asking the university to take two specific actions: one, to ensure employees are given accurate information about their benefits, and two, to compensate the many individuals who were forced to buy expensive insurance on the open market or go without coverage because of the university’s actions.
This isn’t an insubstantial issue. Some of our members were forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket for plans to cover themselves and their families, including pregnant women and young children. Our contract with the university specified that the university should pay these costs. It didn’t. To right these wrongs, the university needs to reimburse those affected and take steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
We’ve reached out to the university many times to resolve these issues and are prepared to make our case before a neutral arbitrator if necessary. Unfortunately, the university has delayed coming to an agreement and cancelled several meetings at the last minute. The delays must end.
We urge the university to come to the table and work through this problem, compensate workers for the costs the university should have paid and put measures in place to ensure a postdoctoral scholar doesn’t have to go without affordable coverage. Only then can we finally put this behind us. With a new president at the university, we’re interested in forging a productive relationship based on fairness and respect. Resolving this issue is the first step in making that happen.
Neal Sweeney is the president of UAW Local 5810.