State Center Employees Want Free Health Care. They’re Willing to Sacrifice COLA Raise to Get It. - GV Wire - Explore. Explain. Expose
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State Center Employees Want Free Health Care. They’re Willing to Sacrifice COLA Raise to Get It.



State Center employees are trying to bargain for free health insurance at the risk of losing part of a COLA raise. (Shutterstock)
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More than 600 State Center Community College District employees who are now working without a contract are prepared to sacrifice a portion of a state-funded 8.22% cost-of-living increase as they negotiate for health insurance themselves and other district employees.

California State Employees Association Chapter 379, which represents most of the district’s non-instructional staffers, contends the district has plenty of money to cover healthcare insurance costs because it’s sitting on a general fund reserve of $83 million — almost double the amount that is required.

Under a district board rule, State Center is required to keep no less than two months of regular general fund operating expenditures in reserve, or 17%. But the reserve now stands at 32%, the union says.

The union’s chief negotiator, Tyler Johns, says that increasing health care benefits to cover 100% of premiums would use only a portion of the reserves and would put all employees on par with the only district employee whose health insurance is covered100% — Chancellor Carole Goldsmith, who has an annual salary of $369,000 and can better afford to pay for health care than the district’s mailroom workers, painters, research assistants, and athletic trainers.

CSEA Chapter 397 is State Center’s only bargaining unit working without a contract. The union’s last contract, a three-year pact, expired at the end of June.

50/50 Rule Limits Spending

Johns said the union is negotiating for free health insurance for all employees because of the state’s 50-50 rule, which requires that at least 50% of community college funding be spent on instruction.

That instructional spending could include free health insurance for instructors, said Johns, a fulltime science laboratory coordinator.

Right now State Center has a 90-10 plan in which the insurance company pays 90% of costs after employees meet their deductible. State Center pays 74% of employees’ health insurance premiums, or $1,135 monthly, and employees pay the remainder, or $407 a month.

By comparison, Fresno Unified teachers now have a 95-5 plan but are seeking in their new contract to have health insurance premium costs covered 100% by the district, Johns said.

State Center trustees approved the district’s final budget for the 2023-24 year at Tuesday’s board meeting. The budget includes an 8.22% cost of living pay increase for all employees except those in the CSEA Chapter 397 bargaining unit, according to the meeting agenda.

“We are still negotiating with CSEA, and funds are set aside in the budget for CSEA salary increases anticipating that we can come to an agreement,” district spokeswoman Jill Wagner said. “We are hopeful we can reach a resolution soon.”

Raises Might Not Be Retroactive

But the district has told the union that if the two sides can’t ratify a new contract before the next board meeting on Oct. 3, the cost-of-living raises may not be retroactive, Johns said.

There is only one negotiating session scheduled between now and Oct. 3, he said.

But even with the threat of losing a portion of their cost of living pay increase, “our members have told us that they’re willing to wait for a decent proposal from the district,” Johns said.

They have turned out in force to address the board at the past two meetings and have signed up for next month’s meeting in Madera as well as the November meeting, he said, adding, “People are upset.”

Wagner declined to respond to questions about the district’s budget reserves, free health insurance for employees, the implied threat over the cost-of-living retroactivity, and the contract term.

“We have just gotten underway with our CSEA negotiations,” she said. “We are still trading proposals and the teams have not yet submitted initial proposals on all the articles included in their sunshine proposals. Some of the questions seem based on rumor, and not what is going on at the bargaining table.

“We will continue to negotiate in good faith with CSEA, and all our labor partners. We look forward to our next meeting with CSEA on Sept. 15.”

Other Points of Negotiation

Johns said the union also is seeking to negotiate improvements in salaries and wages for classified workers. The weighted average salaries for faculty and educational administrators are closer to the average for community colleges in California, while the weighted annual salary for State Center’s classified employees is far below the state average, according to union data.

The length of the contract also is up for negotiation. The union wants to sign another three-year term, but the district wants to make it a two-year pact.

Although the district told the union that the shorter contract would then line up with contracts of the other bargaining units, Johns said he suspects there’s another reason.

The Legislature has given community colleges another two years to try to restore student enrollment to pre-pandemic levels and has continued to provide funding at the former levels. But if enrollments don’t rebound, the college might have to prepare to tighten its belt, Johns said.

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email