Pomona Cuts Employee Insurance Premiums

Pomona College employees earning less than $52,000 per year will be required to pay less than half as much in monthly health care insurance premiums in 2012 as they have in past years, the school told staff members last Friday.

Pomona Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson said the administration has revised its plan in order to cover ninety percent of the health insurance premiums required for all employees earning under $52,000 per year, a coverage level that did not previously apply to workers on the medical plans for couples or families.

“Basically the approach is that we are going to pay ninety percent of the premium, whether you are employee only, employee plus one, or employee plus family,” Sisson said, referring to the different types of insurance plans, which vary in price according to coverage. “Typically for employee plus one it’s approximately eighty percent, and for family it’s approximately seventy percent that the college pays.”

“Now for those individuals that are in this wage range it will be ninety percent, regardless of which coverage level you’re electing,” she said.

The rates for employee only medical plans were not cut because they were already at the ninety percent coverage level, Sisson added.

Shortly after the announcement of the insurance premium cut, supporters of the pro-union group of dining hall employees Workers for Justice (WFJ) distributed flyers in Frary Dining Hall outlining the price changes and calling the cuts a “victory” for WFJ organizing efforts. WFJ has been pushing for a vote on unionization of Pomona’s dining hall workers since March 2010, though no vote has been held due to a disagreement between WFJ and the Pomona administration over voting processes.

“In the midst of our organizing drive, the college has lowered the cost of health insurance!” the flyer read. “We are proud of this victory and will keep fighting until we get a fair process to choose a union!” A majority of Pomona dining hall workers earns less than $52,000, qualifying them for the lower rates.

Leaders of WFJ applauded the premium cut, but questioned the school’s motives and emphasized that the organization still demands a fair process for unionization to address remaining grievances.

“What [the administration] wants is to try to buy or keep the employees happy so [we] won’t form a union,” said Christian Torres, a chef in Frary. “But the employees will continue fighting for a fair process [for unionization].”

“The administration wants to give the employees what they supposedly want to keep them content,” Torres added. “They already gave us raises one year ago. They gave us twelve-month employment,” he said, referring to the guarantee of full-year employment that Pomona offered all dining hall workers in March 2011, an increase over the seven- and nine-month contracts that were previously guaranteed to employees.

Sisson said that the decisions to cut health insurance premiums and to guarantee twelve-month employment for workers were made largely independent of WFJ protests.

“Whenever we do something good, it’s always because UNITE HERE! or Workers for Justice or someone has made us do it, and I don’t think that’s consistent with the record,” she said.

But Sisson acknowledged that calls for change from dining employees did play a role in the administration’s decisions.

“We were already moving in that direction,” she said. “But I think that part of being a good employer is really listening to your workforce and knowing what’s going on.”

Benny Avina, a catering chef who works in Frary and a former WFJ leader, said he felt the administration has been doing a better job of listening to workers, which he said has changed the perspectives of several employees towards forming a union.

“Those that I know who signed a petition [supporting the union] say, ‘I signed it because that was a different situation,’” he said. “They say the union is not necessary anymore.”

“It looks like just a few workers want the union, and they don’t have the support,” Avina added. “They don’t have the support because things are getting better, because we’re getting what we want from the administration.”

Still, Avina said there were issues that the administration had left unaddressed.

“I hope they change the policy that says if you get sick, if you’re not available to come back to work in a year, you’re out,” he said, referring to a school policy that mandates that employees on leave who don’t return to work after one year will be terminated. Last year, WFJ members protested what they perceived as the unfair firing of Francisco Garcia, whose position was terminated as a result of this policy.

Torres pointed to a lack of job security and recurring disrespect from managers as reasons to continue pushing for a union.

“They’re giving us all these things, [but] they can similarly take it all away from us,” he said. “There is no security at all.”

“I’ve said it many times and I’ll continue to say it: the worker needs respect,” Torres added. “Many people don’t feel respected. The managers laugh at us [and] make fun of us.”

Co-WFJ leader Rolando Araiza echoed Torres’s sentiment, and argued that a lack of full-time employees in the dining halls is leaving current employees overworked.

“I feel like I’m just their animal. I feel like the abuse me,” he said. “If one person can do [a] two-person job, instead of hiring someone they’ll just make one person do a two-person job.”

Sisson pointed out that the issue of understaffing is being addressed. In an article in last week’s TSL, Dining Services General Manager Glenn Graziano said the school had approved the hire of nineteen additional employees, who are currently being recruited.

Maya Booth contributed reporting for this story.

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