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Lisa Feldman of Orono is a University of Maine System retiree.
When I turned 70, I retired from the University of Maine System. It was a great place to work, but not the high road to riches. I’m typical. As a library worker, I had to be competent in customer service, record-keeping systems, and computer hardware and software fundamentals. I also had to understand the basics of relational database architecture, cataloguing rules and information literacy. It was clerical work, but not unskilled. There have been several raises since I retired. Yet, if I started work tomorrow, I’d make a dollar and change above minimum wage.
Whenever employees complained about skimpy pay, university system administrators objected that “compensation” consisted of benefits as well as salary. They pointed with pride to a strong benefits package, especially our health insurance. We did appreciate our insurance. For many of us, this and the implicit promise of retiree health insurance to follow was what kept us working decade after decade.
No one with less than 10 full-time years of service qualifies for university system retiree insurance. Many of us worked for much longer. That system of retiree health insurance will end with the calendar year. This big change was made without participation by representatives of either current or retired employees. It was announced with little notice — we got a letter at the end of August telling us to sign up for a replacement by the end of October.
This replacement will be not a new group plan but an individual “health reimbursement arrangement.” We’ll be liberated to choose a plan, then pay the premiums and related costs. The system will reimburse “allowable” expenses up to a less-than-lavish maximum of $2,100 per retiree ($800 for spouses).
Will this new arrangement furnish comparably affordable, accessible and comprehensive insurance coverage for nearly 3,000 campus and Cooperative Extension retirees? The university system said it can absorb the costs of transition and still save 34 percent on retiree insurance. You do the math.
We know this is a tough time for public-sector budgets. We understand all too well the need for belt-tightening. During preceding budget crises, many of us had our hours cut or our work year shortened. We made do with tiny raises, or no raises at all. When system administrators exhorted us to “do more with less,” we figured out how to make that happen.
Decade after decade, we’ve helped the university system save money by learning to increase productivity. Now, in the midst of a global health crisis, a vulnerable population will be cast adrift on the choppy waters of insurance “entrepreneurialism.” Shouldn’t Maine’s public university system be managed for the public good as well as the bottom line? Is this change really a good bargain?
The current chancellor is new to Maine, new to the University of Maine System and new to higher education. So I address these questions to trustees, who have been here longer.
University retirees are not merely a drain on finances. We volunteer on campus. We help recruit students. We make alumni and other financial donations. We contact legislators to support budget requests. We mobilize votes for bond issues. Significantly changing retiree health insurance will result in some loss of this support. Has your cost-benefit analysis taken this forfeit into account?
Current employees within 10 years of retirement have had their plans upended by this change. Younger employees will think, “Maybe I should look for a job where I can make more money.” In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, when we need staff to be focused entirely on the job at hand, was it a good idea to provoke a crisis in employee morale?
Would a more open, more inclusive, more democratic decision-making and planning process have resulted in a better solution?
As veteran educators and support staff, we know that an important part of the educational process is recognizing mistakes and learning from them. We therefore ask the trustees to rethink this reckless, potentially costly step.