Five-Tidbit Friday: October 2, 2015

This is the third installment of Five Tidbit Friday, and this week we’ve got news items ranging from near to far and back again.

  • CANCER WALK Congratulations to participants of this year’s cancer walk! The roughly thirteen thousand participants this year have raised nearly $400,000 for cancer research and care. 20150927_093855.jpg

  • RETIREE BENEFITS in the NEWS You may remember the now-defeated House Bill H59, which was designed to cut pension benefits from State Employees. That bill did not pass. However, we’ve been watching a similar situation in Rhode Island for employees of the state there, to better understand potential threats to public employee retirement plans. This week, the New York Times describes how that dispute played out, and the settlement between unions and the State.
  • FREE SPEECH at WORK In national news, an NLRB complaint against Quicken Loans could redefine the rules of free speech in the workplace, reports the Detroit Free Press. The case is likely to have implications for social media. The ruling is expected to uphold current standards, including that "employees have a ... right to discuss wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment with fellow employees, as well as with non-employees, such as union representatives." Meanwhile, the US Department of Labor has continued its emphasis on employee rights with a Worker Voice Summit, which will underscore the value of worker organizing and collective bargaining, as a new #starttheconvo initiative invites frontline voices from around the country into that conversation.
  • happymoose.jpeg

    INNOVATIONS in HEALTHCARE The Legal Services Corporation recently announced that Community Legal Aid in Worcester, Massachusetts will receive a 24-month $209,524 Pro Bono Innovation Fund grant to develop a partnership with UMass Memorial Medical Center. The model will address legal needs that can negatively impact the health of low-income and minority communities and interfere with healthcare providers’ ability to improve the health of these patients.
  • MOOSE! We hear that a moose has been recently seen on our local Worcester streets. Drive safe!

See you here next Friday. Hope you have a great weekend.

Report from the H59 Public Hearing

Members of the SHARE leadership team recently traveled into Boston for the open hearing on House Bill 59, Governor Patrick's proposal to change the structure of the Retiree Health Benefit for State Employees. (For background, please see this previous post about the details of the bill, and this update about the status of the bill, prior to the open hearing, which includes information about how to be involved.)

I'll do my best to provide meaningful highlights. The hearing went several hours longer than the two hour scheduled meeting time, and there were plenty of colorful details. Hundreds of opponents to H59 filled Gardner Auditorium on Beacon Hill. Although the status of the bill is not yet certain, and no one can know what subsequent proposals might target State Employee benefits in the coming years, I think SHARE members have good reasons to be optimistic that their Retiree Health Benefits will not be taken away as a result of this particular bill. To pass it, the outgoing Governor has a lot to overcome, and not much time to do it. Most members of the Committee reviewing the Bill, The Joint Committee on Public Service, expressed grave concerns about the spirit and structure of the cost-shifting involved in the bill. (Representative James Miceli likened the "shifting" to "shafting.") Though the Committee's questions were measured, and seemed genuinely to get at understanding all of the arguments involved, I didn't hear any individuals on the Committee mention any support for the bill; some explicitly stated that they would not support it as it is written. 

Members of the Committee first heard from Glen Shor, Secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, and his panel, to explain the rationale behind the bill. They explained that, unlike the State Pension program, the Retiree Health Benefit is unfunded, and that their current calculations show that the Benefit represents a 46 billion dollar liability for the state of Massachusetts. They explained that the bill is designed to bring costs in line by year nine of its implementation, and save one billion, cumulatively, by the end of that first decade. Due to the grandfathering clauses, the state would not fully realize the financial impact of the bill for roughly thirty years. (It's worth noting that there was grumbling both from the audience--and from the Committee itself--about the lack of quantifiable details regarding the proposal from the Secretary's panel. Senator Dan Wolf put it most plainly as he searched for answers about how the Bill would affect individuals, noting that Massachusetts employees are entitled to a sustainable State budget, but not at the expense of "sustainability around the kitchen table" as they calculate their home budgets.)

Many, many groups and individuals testified, representing towns, taxpayer groups, unions, and employee advocacy groups. The committee heard from UMass employees at various campuses. Shawn Duhamel, of MassRetirees, (who has visited the UMMS campus to talk with employees and members of Human Resources about H59) testified alongside the AFL-CIO. Even Ebba Hierta, the library worker who created the popular Facebook page, Stop Massachusetts Bill H59, came to explain how passage of the Bill would force her to retire from the job she loves, several years earlier than she intends . . . and at greater cost to the State, since it would be paying her benefits sooner, in addition to the wages and benefits of her replacement. 

The long conversation flushed out several concerns and criticisms. In addition to those mentioned above, these included:
  • Many, many references to the broken promise to State employees who have worked diligently, and made career choices, based on assumptions that they would qualify for the Retiree Health benefit.
  • Concerns that passage of the Bill could create unforeseen costs to the State in the form of litigation, resulting from that broken promise. (One such case in Rhode Island is not yet resolved. Opponents promised similar litigation in Massachusetts to block the implementation of Bill 59.)
  • Worries that the structure of the Bill's implementation creates several "cliffs." In other words, the milestones and cutoffs created in the bill would make it so that employees with similar demographics, who might have had very similar lengths of service, would experience very different retirement benefits, requiring some to retire early, requiring others to work several years longer than they had planned, and simply leaving others in the lurch with no coverage whatsoever.
  • Concern that the provisions of the bill rely on the Affordable Care Act to offset some of the impacts, even though the Affordable Care Act hasn't yet been fully implemented, and faces obvious challenges of its own.
  • A preference to directly address the issue of skyrocketing healthcare costs, and create actual savings, rather than shifting costs from the State on to its employees.
  • The need to consider more progressive ways of addressing the liability, which are unfairly weighted against lower-wage earners and women, whose caregiving obligations can sometimes make it impossible to reach the new 30-year requirement created by the Bill.
We'll keep at this, and will keep you posted. Please contact me (kirk.davis@theshareunion.org, OR 508-929-4020 x18), if you have specific questions, or would like to talk about the open hearing and H59.

Retiree Health Reform Update--Open Hearing this Thursday

SHARE members, like other employees of the State of Massachusetts, are vested in the pension after 10 years of creditable service. Currently, they are also eligible, upon retirement, for retiree health insurance. House Bill 59 proposes to change the eligibility for retiree health coverage. (Please see our previous blog post for full details of the Major Changes Proposed to the State Retiree Health benefit.)

On the plus side, it appears unlikely that the bill will be passed into law in the next few weeks before we reach the end of the current legislative session. If the issue is revived in the next legislative session (as it might be, since the benefit represents an estimated 84 billion dollar unfunded liability), the political landscape of the election year is likely to yield changes in any proposal that might be made.

That said, we want to make sure that the policy-makers know how important this is to SHARE members. We know that many of you have made important decisions about your careers and livelihoods with the idea that you would have access to the benefit as it is currently offered. Although the current version of the bill provides exclusions for State employees nearing retirement with certain amounts of service, if it were passed as-is, the effects on the Retiree Health Benefit would be dramatic and would affect most SHARE members.

House 59 is currently being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Public Service. The lawmakers on the committee have scheduled an open hearing for public commentThe hearing will be held October 31st, at 11am, in the Gardner Auditorium of the Massachusetts State House in Boston. SHARE leadership will be attending, and welcome members to join us on Beacon Hill that day.

In addition, if you would like to make a personal appeal to the Chairs of the Joint Committee, or to your local elected official, we encourage you to write to them to let them know who you are, what the Retiree Health benefit means to you, and that you're paying attention to the outcomes. 

Please call the SHARE office at 508-929-4020 x18 if you have questions or thoughts. Below you can find email addresses for the Chairs of the Joint Committee on Public Service. Online you can also find a full list of the names and contacts for the Joint Committee Members, and contact information for your local elected officials.


William N. Brownsberger, Senate Chair: william.brownsberger@masenate.gov
Michael J. Rodrigues, Senate Vice Chair: michael.rodrigues@masenate.gov

Aaron M. Michlewitz, House Chair: aaron.m.michlewitz@mahouse.gov
John J. Lawn, House Vice Chair: john.lawn@mahouse.gov

Major changes proposed to State Retiree Health Benefit

You may have heard the announcement by Governor Patrick earlier this year regarding proposals that would affect the State Retiree Health Benefit. The proposed changes could significantly impact the majority of SHARE members at UMMS. According to Governor Patrick's letter attached to the bill itself, the cuts are in response to the fact that the benefit currently represents more than a 40 billion dollar unfunded liability for Massachusetts, and we have heard figures that reach $83.6 billion. They pertain only to the Retiree Health benefit, and do not affect the pension system

Under the proposal, current retirees will not be affected. However, the affect on most current employees would be dramatic, including: 

  • Minimum age of eligibility for retiree health care benefits increased by 5 years (for SHARE members, from 55 to 60).
  • Minimum years of service will be increased from 10 to 20 years for vesting in the retiree health benefit.
  • Benefit prorated from 50% premium contribution at 20 years, and would not match the current maximum current retiree benefit (80%) until 30 years. 
  • The change would impact all future SHARE employees, as well as all current employees, except (i) those with 20 years of service and within 5 years of pension eligibility as of July 1 2013; and, (ii) those within 5 years of Medicare eligibility and with a minimum of 9 years of creditable service as of July 1, 2013. 

Though the bill was originally scheduled to go into effect in July of this year, the timeline appears to have slowed down. The bill is currently being considered by the Joint Committee on Public Service. This Committee has not yet set its 2013 Public Hearing schedule; however, we understand that the first hearing is likely to take place in September or October.

SHARE leadership is currently at work to determine what possibilities could be created to protect the Retiree Health benefit for SHARE members. We are consulting with other unions and State employee groups, including UMass and UMass Medical School, to ally our efforts with other groups. We will provide more information and developments on this blog, as well as at SHARE Information Meetings.

Perhaps the best online news source for developments in the proposal can be found on the Mass Retirees website.

We recommend all SHARE members become familiar with the online summary of the effects of the bill.

You can also read the full text of MA H59 in all of its legalistic detail.

More to come . . .