It has been awhile since our last update on here, and since then we have had two bargaining sessions. In these sessions, we finished laying out our most economically significant items: health insurance, fees, and salary.
On Wednesday April 11 we presented our proposed changes to health insurance for graduate employees. We have three major goals in this area: (1) increasing OSU’s coverage of premiums over the summer to the same amount as the during the rest of the year (currently 85%), (2) making this period of coverage more flexible by changing it from summer term coverage to a 3 month coverage available anytime employment lapses, and (3) beginning employer contributions to partner or dependent premium coverage.
The case for partner/dependent health insurance coverage was first laid out with testimony from graduate employee Eric Cram. His statements spoke to the hardship of having to pay for dependent health insurance premiums on a graduate assistant salary without any employer contribution. While OSU’s team seemed to understand the reality of this situation, they seemed more concerned about the difficulty of projecting costs of such a program. We did get their team to agree to work with us to gather data to make so we can make a reasonable estimate of what costs partial coverage of dependent premiums would be.
OSU seemed surprisingly receptive to our case for increasing the premium coverage over summer term. They readily agreed that the 50% coverage currently available results in a low percentage of people enrolling over the summer due to high costs. We all want graduate employees to be able to count on health insurance coverage year-round. Our idea to change the summer coverage to a more flexible coverage that would extend for any three-month period after employment was met with acknowledgement that it would simplify administration of health insurance for Student Health Services.
Although not a key point, we also discussed administration of health insurance waivers. OSU brought up general concerns with employees not completing waiver forms properly or in a timely manner, but had not suggestion on how to fix this issue. We suggested the waiver requirements should be more flexible, only requiring equivalent medical coverage regardless of optical or dental options.
Overall, the negotiations over health insurance were similarly productive to previous sessions using Interest-Based Bargaining. Instead of refusing to even consider items for which cost estimates would be uncertainty, OSU agreed to research alongside CGE data that could put reasonable constraints on costs that would allow us to move forward.
Unfortunately, the following negotiations on Friday April 20 were not as productive. A number of witnesses along with our team first presented the difficulties and resentment graduate employees feel towards student fees at OSU. We highlighted that this is ALWAYS the NUMBER ONE issue our members tell us before bargaining. Since OSU already provides $300 per term in a differential payment, they are over halfway towards eliminating the fee issue altogether and conclusively addressing the biggest concern graduate employees bring to the table every year in bargaining. We also presented the case for the need to increase salaries, especially in light of the rapidly rising costs of rent in the Corvallis area. Our surveys have shown that 57% of graduates had their rent increase since last year, with the average increase over 13%. We gave a presentation that demonstrated that the costs grads face are about two and half times the current minimum salary – even the federal poverty line is one and half times what the lowest paid earn. We hope that OSU recognizes the need for raises, even Graduate School has released a report saying the lowest paid graduate employees do not receive enough compensation (the Graduate School’s suggested cost of living is over twice the current minimum salary).
Unfortunately, instead of addressing our concerns, OSU’s team instead felt very focused on considering compensation coupled with our tuition waivers. We find it very unlikely that OSU is actually interested in reducing or eliminating tuition waivers (and the mass exodus of graduate employees that would follow) so these comments contributed nothing to the issue at hand. We stated very clearly that our major interest in addressing fees and salary is to provide graduate employees security to deal with yearly increasing in cost of living and allow those of us who contribute to OSU’s mission as employees to be able to have a reasonable standard of living and not accrue additional debt. The reality is, increasing salaries and reducing fees is a cost to OSU. It is a cost, however, that recognizes the important contributions in research and teaching graduate employees have shouldered that has allowed OSU to be in the relatively secure financial position it proclaims to be in today.
We have a three-week break until our next bargaining session on Friday May 11 from 12-3 pm in Westminster House. Hopefully in this time OSU will be able to seriously look at the issues we have raised and can come prepared to start committing to making changes that will give graduate employees fair compensation while making OSU more competitive and productive.