Health insurance: The cost of doing nothing

When is enough enough?

Is it the prospect of losing some of our most seasoned reporters in buyouts?

Is it the threat of layoffs of our youngest and most promising journalists?

Is it proposals to reduce wages, paid days off, holiday pay and mileage reimbursement?

Is it demands to give up bargaining rights so the company can charge employees to park or limit food service?

Is it the idea of outsourcing work in Classified or doing away with the last full-time district managers?

How about this?

For you hard-working, full-time Newspaper Guild members who will remain at The Buffalo News, one issue — more than any other — threatens your way of life: health insurance.

Under a clause in our contract, the News will no longer have to pay the full cost of our base health insurance plan after Dec. 31, 2011, unless The Guild and The News negotiate an alternative agreement. Without an alternative agreement, the company’s health insurance obligation after Dec. 31, 2011, is to provide only enough money to pay the current cost of the 2011 base health plan plus small annual increases.

Without a change in the clause or an alternative arrangement, employees will pay the difference between the cost of the insurance and what the company provides. The amount Guild employees pay will quickly reach thousands of dollars a year, then tens of thousands. At bargaining Friday, the Guild explained to management the crushing financial consequences to employees and their families if the News sticks to this plan.

“We understand that health care costs keep rising and that the newspaper business is in turmoil. But to move forward under this clause, would be unsustainable for employees, a heartless action by the company and, ultimately, bad for the newspaper,” said Guild President Henry Davis.

The Guild agreed to this clause years ago in return for pension improvements and avoided problems over the past decade by aggressively working to redesign our health plans to lower the company’s cost. We have accepted higher copayments and deductibles for care. But the price of insurance has continued to rise, and we are running out of easy ways to redesign the health plan.

The News rejected a Guild bargaining team proposal to provide enough health credits each year to cover the cost of the base health plan, so the Guild is preparing another proposal. The next negotiation session is scheduled for Friday.

“As in the past, the Guild is ready and willing to find a compromise that avoids the potential for a labor dispute at a time when we should all be focused on the future of the newspaper,” Davis said.

The threat to your standard of living is very real. Machinists at the newspaper have been working under a similar clause and already pay a $180 a week for a family plan – more than $9,000 a year.

Based on Guild estimates, displayed in the following chart, employees in accounting and customer service could see their pay, after insurance costs are deducted, fall in a few years below poverty levels. Reporters could see their salary decline by one-third.

The federal poverty level is considered the minimum necessary to buy the necessities of life. Estimated poverty levels for 2016 are $20,900 for a family of three; $25,200 for a family of four; and $29,500 for a family of five.

If you calculate take-home pay, which is about 75 percent of the total wages listed in the chart, clerical workers by early in the next decade will take home nothing, and reporter take-home pay will dip below poverty level.

The projections don’t include the wage cut employees received last year or potential cuts proposed by the News. Nor do they include rising payments for dental insurance.

Working families deserve affordable health care. For decades, a test of a responsible company has been whether it provides affordable coverage to its employees.

Today, even with rising health costs, most companies of the size and stature of The News, a still-profitable company owned by one of the richest men in the world, take responsibility for providing meaningful coverage. Private employers in the U.S., on average, pay about 20 percent toward the cost of employee health insurance premiums. Under The News’ scenario, Guild members will pay ever-increasing portions of their insurance until they pay almost all of it.

Ask yourself how you will afford your mortgage or car loan? How will you pay your bills? How will you send a child to college or save for retirement?

How, eventually, will you put food on the table? What will happen if you suffer a serious injury or disease and must take on major expenses that insurance doesn’t cover?

Doing nothing about health insurance also hurts the newspaper.

The Buffalo News has been a place where employees could put down roots, make a career and take pride in the product. It has a great newsroom that regularly goes the extra mile to write stories, shoot photos, design graphics and organize coverage of events.

If the News can’t maintain a newspaper where talented people want to work, we will lose the talent and, with it, our quality and credibility.

This clause constitutes an unfair, life-altering threat. Don’t ignore it. Don’t accept it out of resignation or a feeling of helplessness.

We are not wrong to expect fairness from The News. In the end, that’s all we’re asking for, and that’s what the Guild will demand.

“United for Fairness” job action Thursday

In conjunction with Thursday’s informational meeting at 5:30 p.m., we are asking all Guild members to wear stickers and display table tents to let management know that we stand together in our demands for a fair contract. Guild Messengers will be distributing these items Thursday morning, and we ask every Guild member to wear and display them prominently.

The informational meeting with members of the Guild bargaining team will be held in the first-floor News auditorium. We hope to see you there.