By Dawn Hiltner, NJEA staff
When was the last time you got a raise? You probably moved a step on your salary guide in September or maybe you even moved over a column when you earned your master’s degree, but did you get a raise in take-home pay?
Too many public school employees are experiencing severe reductions in take-home pay as a result of Chapter 78, the pension and benefits reduction law vehemently opposed by NJEA but championed by Senate President Steve Sweeney and signed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. Christie and Sweeney convinced legislators that the law would strengthen the state’s pension systems, but instead it’s having a devastating impact on NJEA members.
In addition to increasing employees’ pension contributions, Chapter 78 mandated that employees pay a percentage of their health insurance premiums. Depending on plan choices, level of coverage, and salary, the employee contribution ranges from 3 percent to 35 percent of the premium and is never less than 1.5 percent of the employee’s base salary.
When an employee’s salary increases, the contribution may jump to another level of premium sharing, resulting in any pay raise being reduced, negated, or, even worse, decreased. Whenever there is a premium increase, the contribution increases and further reduces take-home pay.
A complete repeal of Chapter 78 with no mandatory insurance contributions from members is unlikely in today’s political climate. So NJEA is taking a two-pronged approach to righting the ship. The association is working to propose legislation to significantly lower the mandated premium contribution. As long as mandated premium sharing exists, it should be capped based on salary and type of coverage. While legislative relief is important, it is a long, slow process with no guarantees.
Meanwhile, several NJEA local association representatives are working with their UniServ field reps on a proactive approach at the bargaining table. As a result, 37 NJEA locals in 32 school districts have made modifications to Chapter 78 insurance premium contributions.
This year’s NJEA Jim George Collective Bargaining Award winner, the City of Burlington Education Association (CBEA), came to the bargaining table refusing to accept anything less than a 4.6 percent settlement until the board agreed to discuss Chapter 78. CBEA’s proposal took members’ current insurance premiums into account. Even a 4.6 percent settlement rate would not completely offset the $992,500 in contributions members made in the 2014-15 school year.
Just drawing a line in the sand wasn’t enough—the association spent 19 months on escalating collective actions to put pressure on the board of education.
Members engaged in informational picketing before and after school. They refused to attend after-school faculty meetings because contract language expressly stated that “teachers were free to leave at the end of the work day.” In its frustration, the board filed unfair labor practice (ULP) complaints against the local and disciplined its members both verbally and in writing. Instead of caving in, members organized and filed for arbitration, calling for removal of all disciplinary documents.
“The board kept saying to us ‘you haven’t moved off your positions,’” recalled NJEA UniServ field representative Harry Zakarian. “We explained that we were looking at this as a comprehensive economic package. We said, ‘Members are still contributing over $990,000. Let’s talk about that.’”
Finally in October 2015, CBEA achieved a strong contract settlement both in salaries and in relief from the escalating percentage in health benefit premium sharing that often severely undercut any raise. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, base salary increases of 2.6 percent were achieved for each year. In 2016-17 and 2017-18 base increases of 2.5 percent each year were negotiated. In addition, all members move a step each year and no steps were added to the guide. But it was the significant modifications to the structure of Chapter 78 contributions won by CBEA that made those raises meaningful.
Before the settlement, CBEA members were paying as much as 29 percent of their health benefits premiums under Chapter 78. This year, members who earn more than $50,000 have their contributions capped at 17 percent. In this contract year, those who earn $35,000 to $49,999 pay 9 percent of premium, while those earning $20,000 to $34,999 pay 6 percent. Next year, those two percentages will drop to 8 percent, and 4.5 percent, respectively. As a result, some members are realizing savings of up to $3,000 dollars a year and getting raises as well.
“A handful of members paid a little more this year, but they know they will save a lot of money in contributions in the long run, so we had plenty of support,” explained Zakarian. “If you stay in this school district, even when you get to the top of the guide you’ll never pay 29 percent again.”
CBEA also negotiated into its contract that should the board seek to make changes to their health benefit plans—whether it be to the carrier or level of benefits—that benefits must be equal to or better than the NJ Direct 10 plan of the School Employees Health Benefits Program (SEHBP). Additionally, CBEA will see no changes in dental, prescription, or health benefits plans or levels of coverage.
CBEA was also able to cap the number of faculty meetings at six a year, lasting no longer than 45 minutes. The 45-minute limit begins at student dismissal, not at the end of the work day. The association also made significant improvements to prep time to match student periods and duty-free lunch periods for 40 minutes at the high schools and 50 minutes at the intermediate and elementary schools. Additionally, when grievances are filed, both parties now have full access to all relevant materials including documents, videos, emails and other exhibits. The board can no longer “surprise” the local with materials it withheld.
“Those who stand and fight to the end make it easier for their colleagues in other locals,” added Zakarian. “That’s what Burlington did. It shows that organizing pays off. If you keep your members informed and engaged, they will stand solid with you. This is proof positive.”
The Fair Lawn Education Association in Bergen County did what they do best: teach. The association leadership calculated that after paying mandated insurance contributions, members’ take-home salaries were equivalent to 2004 contracts. They used the slogan “2016 work for 2004 pay.” The association created videos to post on Facebook and YouTube educating members and the public about their situation.
At a rally of 300 members and residents last December, Assemblymen Tim Eustace and Joseph Lagana joined them in support. FLEA President Gene Kuffel had spoken with the two lawmakers about how the governor and legislators who supported Chapter 78 not only harmed his members but significantly reduced state revenue.
“They say all politics is local, so it’s important to educate lawmakers on how our communities are impacted by their bad decisions,” explained Kuffel. “They were surprised at the amount of contributions our members pay and—since that money is not taxed—the significant loss of tax revenue. In addition, there is less disposable income for members to spend in their communities.”
Kuffel said that the state is losing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue because of Chapter 78.
FLEA’s strategy paid off. In addition to a 2.7 percent settlement, the association negotiated a significant pool of money dedicated to offset members’ premium contributions: $320,000 for 2016-17, $335,000 for 2017-18, and $345,000 for 2018-19. The money is being distributed to provide as much relief to members as possible.
Carteret Education Association (CEA) used Chapter 78 improvements as a bargaining chip. The board of education wasn’t interested in offering any relief to members, but didn’t want to experience the contentious bargaining it had had the past. In response, CEA fought for significant salary increases over county average to help offset members’ premium contributions.
“The key to successful negotiations is knowing who is across from you at the table,” explained CEA President John Nartowicz. “We knew that if we pushed Chapter 78 any further, we wouldn’t get anywhere. So when they came up with extra money, we dropped Chapter 78 and took the pensionable income.”
The resulting four-year contract includes settlements of 4.93 percent, 4 percent, 4.07 percent, and 4.18 percent. The local also raised starting salaries from $48,600 to $55,330 and the top of the salary guide goes from $88,996 to $96,330 by the end of the contract. They were able to achieve this while maintaining a manageable increment cost and without adding steps to the guide.
“We also got seniority for noncertified staff and other improvements,” added Nartowicz.
“With all of the increased demands on educators, our once full-time job is now two full-time jobs in one workday: teaching all day and then dealing with everything else after 3 p.m.,” added Kuffel. “So don’t be afraid to advocate for your members. We are working harder and taking home less money. That’s not right. Don’t back down from the fight.”
Dawn Hiltner is an associate director for organizing and coalition building in the NJEA Communications Division.