Sunday, September 23, 2012

Letter to my brother: benefits

My brother has been wondering about the new CTU contract and what it means for teachers. I wrote him a long email about salaries. This one is about benefits.

Dear Todd,

The benefits of being a unionized teacher are pretty nice, as I'm sure you can imagine. Most unionized workers have traded better benefits for stagnant wages for decades. In CPS, we have high quality health care coverage for pretty decent prices. We also get ten paid vacation days (one week of our winter break is "paid," the other is not, and our one-week spring break is paid), three personal business days, and ten sick days per year. CPS also pays an additional 7% of our salary as a "pension pick up" into the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund (CTPF). The pension pickup is not taxable, but often gets included in published figures of our salary. This is sort of misleading, about which see more below.

There were big disagreements in the contract negotiations over all three of these benefits (health care, vacation days, and pensions). So, let's look at one at a time.

Health care. CPS wanted to increase the premiums paid for health insurance, only for couples and families. We pay our premium as a percentage of salary rather than as a set contribution amount. I think this is fairly unusual; I know that New York doesn't do it. It's also quite low--I think it's 2% for Chris and me to both be on Chris's. CPS wanted to increase the family contribution by quite a bit. The union beat this back.

CPS also wanted to institute a "wellness program" for all CTU members. Chicago has actually gotten almost all of the city employee unions to sign on to this--the last holdouts are the police. Of course, this is to bring down costs. It's going to be sort of a pain in the butt. We have to do annual "biometric screenings" and then keep some sort of account online where we record "points" of some sort once a month for engaging in healthy activities. The only example I've been given of how to do this is reading articles online about healthy habits. So it's mostly just a cost savings, and not actually designed for wellness, which is sort of silly. This doesn't bother me so much, though, because I heard that a staggering proportion of members were not using their insurance well, instead using the ER for most of their health care needs. Yikes! Why don't they just do some health insurance education, you ask? I dunno. HMOs are hard to use, I promise you that.

Sick days. In the past, CPS employees have been able to "bank" their accumulated sick days and personal days. They can then use them in case of long-term illness or family/maternity leave, or they can have the days paid out at their final pay rate when they retire or leave the system. Arne Duncan, our illustrious Secretary of Education, received a $50K sick day payout when he became ed secretary. (Duncan then said in statements that the system was flawed. But he didn't offer to return his payout.)

So CPS wanted to do away with our ability to bank sick days. Initially, they were talking about instituting a "use or lose" policy. Other districts have done this with disastrous effects, from what I've heard. CPS doesn't actually have enough day-to-day substitute teachers to cover all of the absences if every teacher actually took all 10 sick days every year. Also, many teachers (Chris included) didn't want to lose the sick days they had already banked.

The compromise that was reached is pretty great. Previously banked sick days go into a special bank, to be paid out under the old terms. New sick days can still be accumulated up to 45 days to be used as necessary (sick days can also be donated, which is cool). Our three personal days will be use or lose. And, best part, CPS will now offer employees paid short-term disability/maternity/family leave. The first 30 days are paid out at 100% of your salary. After that, it steps down, and you can take up to 90 days. For young teachers new to the system, this is huge, as it means that you don't need to work for several years to accumulate sick days before you can take a paid maternity or paternity leave.

Pensions. The sick day thing wasn't an easy sell, and it really divided the membership along veteran/rookie lines. So did pensions. Initially, CPS was pushing to institute a new two-tier system where current employees would stick to the old pension plan, but new employees would get put into a defined contribution plan. This was obviously divisive. People my age and younger are obviously worried that the pension won't work out for us, so we would rather be able to have a little bit more control over our retirement money. People who are closer to retirement are worried about the weakening of the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, which is actually (thankfully) separate from Illinois's state pension fund and very solvent. Unfortunately, CPS has been diverting money from the CTPF for the last few years to pay for deficits.

Also unfortunately, CTU is one of many teachers unions that foregoes Social Security taxes in favor of their pension contributions (not all teachers unions do this). Many people don't know this, and this is why I think it's unfair to count our pension pickup as part of our "income." It's true that we don't pay social security, so I guess our net income is higher than it normally would be. But we don't *receive* social security either, so it's sort of misleading. I'm sure you can calculate how fair this is in monetary terms, but that's not within my mathematical power.

Anyway, CPS backed off changing our pension contribution scheme pretty quickly. And eventually they agreed to maintain our 7% pension pickup. The best part is, for awhile CPS was saying in the news that we were being offered a 16% raise over 4 years. Guess how they got this number? 3% + 2% + 2% + 2% + 7%. That's right. They haven't actually been paying our pension pickup for the last four years, so they counted starting to pay it again as a RAISE. And here they're saying we're the ones who don't know how to teach math.