Union initiates petition to provide postdoctoral researchers equal health coverage

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Nearly 400 people have signed a petition calling for the University of California to provide all postdoctoral researchers and their dependents equal access to university-provided health benefits.

Initiated last week by UAW Local 5810 — a union representing more than 6,000 postdoctoral researchers at the university — the petition claims that the UC system has violated a 2010 contract between the university and the union that allows for all postdoctoral scholars and their dependents to enroll in the Postdoctoral Scholars Benefits Plan with equal, affordable rates.

Union activists claim that the university violated the contract after the union received complaints in the fall from postdoctoral researchers who had been billed for health care services but were told that the university would not cover them.

“Although postgraduates provide fellowships, awards and millions of dollars in funding to the university … they’re more or less free labor,” said Neal Sweeney, president of UAW Local 5810. “They’ve been affected with a lot of hardship.”

UC Office of the President spokesperson Brooke Converse said that the university does not agree that there has been a contract violation, although there are efforts being put forth to appease the union’s demands.

“In trying to keep relations harmonious, we are looking into collecting in ways other than directly from postdoctorates,” Converse said.

The union and the university are currently in negotiations, although no final agreements have been made. Converse said she could not make further comments until negotiations had progressed.

The petition claims that the current situation for some postdoctoral researchers forces them to look outside the UC-provided coverage for “inferior catastrophic plans at great personal cost.”

Blanca Rios Touma, a visiting researcher in the UC Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development, opted out of the PSBP due to its higher cost compared to the travel insurance she currently holds.

“My case is not the worst — there were postdocs with families,” Touma said. “People who are expecting babies — their cases are really dramatic, because the university premium is so high.”

Mehmet Somel, unit chair of the Berkeley UAW Local 5810 joint council, noted that postdoctoral researchers are generally between 30 and 36 years old, and a decent number have families to take care of.

“Some people had to buy expensive health insurance specifically for their young children while not having any for themselves,” Somel said.

Sweeney added that the current coverage terms appear to be especially problematic for international researchers like Touma, as a majority of those affected by the lack of equal access to health care are in the United States on immigrant guest-worker visas.

“This is the most important thing for the administration to work on,” Somel said. “It shouldn’t even be a question that people working within the university should have health care and other benefits.”

Contact Mia Shaw at [email protected].