Stop discrimination in health care for postdocs

For the thousands of international students and researchers who come to U.S. universities each year, the academy is seen as a beacon of opportunity where the people who work the hardest and have the best ideas rise to the top.

To a union representing more than 6,000 postdoctoral scholars (also known as “postdocs”) at the University of California, this promise means something — the majority of our members are immigrants working in the United States on guest-worker visas, and they are here because they have worked for years to reach the forefront of biology, physics, engineering and other fields. They have already earned doctorates, and they come to the UC system to perform cutting-edge research — think breakthrough cancer therapies, new models for the origin of the universe, stem cell research and more.

Imagine their surprise when, after arriving at the university, they are told that although the contract the union negotiated states that health care coverage is available to all postdocs, it will not be extended to them. This is true despite the fact that their fellowships collectively bring in millions of dollars of research funding to the university each year and include salary support — making them effectively free labor.

Even though the contract provisions are clear, the university has decided to deny some international postdoctoral scholars the benefits to which they are entitled and that their labmates receive. As a result, some have been forced to pay up to $1,200 a month for health insurance, and many simply go without or enroll in inferior plans they must pay for themselves. Some are covering small children or pregnant spouses, and they are all being put in an unfair, dangerous and extremely difficult position by the university.

For example, one UC Berkeley postdoc said she was told she would have to pay the full price of the plan herself — more than $400 per month — although all her colleagues in her department pay less than $10 per month to be covered by the same plan. She was not able to afford the high cost, so, with the university’s knowledge, she was sold an inferior high-deductible plan by the UC system’s health insurance broker. Since then, she has paid nearly $1,000 out of pocket for doctor visits and premiums.

Another UC postdoc told the union that when he came to the United States, the university wouldn’t help him buy health insurance. Because as an individual he doesn’t have the purchasing power that large employers like the university have, he was quoted more than $1,000 a month for a similar plan the UC can buy for $400 a month. Postdocs work very tough hours and salaries start at less than $3,300 per month before taxes. One-thousand dollars a month for health insurance just isn’t possible for them — which is why our union fought for access to affordable health care in our employment contract. The university’s unfair refusal to cover their benefits has already taken thousands of dollars out of their pockets, and every month costs them more.

Our members are dismayed to be adding another chapter to the university’s troubling history of denying health coverage to people whom rightly and legally deserve it.

Late last month, UC graduate students and members of UAW Local 2865 made news after administrators exploited a loophole in the Affordable Care Act to enforce caps on students’ health care costs, causing one student to halt life-saving cancer therapy and another to experience near-paralysis after she was informed her treatment for a neurological disease was no longer covered.

It is hard to believe that these scenarios are unfolding in our own backyard — but they are. After all, it’s not just educational opportunities that attract great people to the United States — it’s hard-won rights like the principle of equal compensation for equal work. Our union has started a petition that has already gained hundreds of signatures — sign it today. We are demanding that the university end this discriminatory policy and reimburse the postdocs affected by this contract violation.

Neal Sweeney is president of UAW Local 5810.

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