Union calls on UC to reimburse postdocs for health care costs

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A union representing University of California postdoctoral researchers is calling on the university to reimburse union members who paid out-of-pocket for health care benefits due to miscommunications over a UC health policy.

UAW Local 5810 — a union representing more than 6,000 postdoctoral scholars at all 10 UC campuses — initiated a petition asking for reimbursements a couple of weeks ago. More than 200 people have signed the petition so far.

In 2010, the university and the union had agreed to a contract that provided benefits to postdocs through a UC health care program, the Postdoctoral Scholar Benefits Plan.

However, some UC postdocs — many of whom are recent immigrants — purchased separate health care plans on the open market after a misunderstanding of what health care benefits were available to them through the university.

In response, the university provided early open enrollment for UC health care benefits to postdocs in May.

“There were some misunderstandings related to (health care benefits), involving about 50 people, that have since been resolved,” said UC spokesperson Dianne Klein in an email. “We looked into these cases and reached a settlement.”

Still, the union alleges that the university “refuses to reimburse those who unnecessarily paid thousands out-of-pocket,” according to a press release issued Monday.

UAW Local 5810 President Neal Sweeney said the university is “stonewalling” and characterized its response as administrative rigmarole.

“There has been no effort for settlement,” Sweeney said. “UC has cancelled two meetings and has not been engaged in reviewing the documentation.”

The union claims that more than 135 postdocs — including 114 at UC Berkeley — are owed nearly $400,000 total in premium payments they should not have been required to make.

Sytske Besemer, a postdoctoral scholar and Rubicon fellow at UC Berkeley whose fellowship funds were taken to pay for the university’s share of the health care plan, is now seeking compensation.

“I was told I had to pay a 20 percent contribution from money meant for salary but did not actually have to … I only got one-fifth (of what I paid) back,” she said. “It’s crazy I had to pay so much money for it.”

The union has been urging for an expedited reimbursement process because, according to Sweeney, many of those affected are in the United States on immigrant guest-worker visas.

“UC is failing its postdocs by failing to live up to its contractual obligations, and is sending a terrible message to bright researchers in other countries who may be considering coming to UC,” Sweeney said in a press release.

Sweeney said that the union would prefer to resolve this dispute without resorting to binding arbitration but added that the members “have a strong case” if they need to.

Contact Jeff Landa at [email protected].