Striking teachers’ health insurance expires in December, and Portland Public Schools is spying on leverage

As a teachers’ strike closes Portland Public Schools for a second week, all indications are that students won’t be in school until Thanksgiving. But there may remain one force strong enough to see the deal through: health insurance.

All eyes are on Nov. 16: If teachers don’t return to classrooms that day, they won’t be eligible for benefits in December, Portland Public Schools says. The district plans to send its striking teachers a packet Nov. 16 instructing them on how to enroll in high-cost COBRA insurance plans.

Portland teachers have already earned their health insurance coverage for November because they worked in October, so these changes won’t start affecting their coverage until December. But receiving a COBRA switch package in the mail could unnerve striking teachers who have been picketing hard since Nov. 1 in the rain outside empty schools.

PPS noted this as its course of action in an Oct. 23 letter to educators: “Coverage will terminate at the end of the month if an employee stops working or is not paid for half of the contracted days of the month,” they wrote, showing , that teachers will be laid off on December 1st.

The Portland Teachers Association says the district’s cutoff date is wrong and that coverage actually expires on Dec. 15. The Oregonian noted the controversy yesterday.

At a press conference at the state Capitol in Salem on Monday, Jacques Dixon, vice president of PAT, argued that the pay period, which ends Nov. 15, “provides teachers with their health insurance in December.”

“I’m not sure that’s really a factor to worry about right now, but I’m confident that the OEA [Oregon Education Association] will take care of it if necessary,” Dixon said.

PAT declined to comment on the matter beyond Dixon’s statement at the press conference.

But a review of the teachers’ earnings summary seems unequivocal: If a school employee quits, their insurance coverage ends at the end of the month.

The 2023 PAT Employee Group Benefit Summary states that “coverage will terminate at the end of the month the employee resigns or ceases to be paid, unless the employee has worked or been paid more than half of the days on contract of the month. In this case the cover will end at the end of the following month.’

The teachers walked off the job on November 1st.

A lobbyist representing the health care industry rated the two claims for WW and concluded that the final date of December 1 seems to be the correct one. If an employee doesn’t work from Nov. 1 to 15, “even a really generous severance package” probably won’t carry an employee until the end of December, he says.

He says these misunderstandings are common when there is a mismatch between the monthly calendar and the pay period calendar, such as in PPS. “People get really confused about this point.”

If teachers return to work after November 16, back wages will depend on the terms of return to the classroom agreed in the contract, the PAT told its members on November 1.

But if they take it out on the line? This is COBRA.

COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) allows people to keep their workplace health coverage for up to 18 months after leaving a job. It is known to be extremely expensive as members usually have to pay the employer’s share of the premium as well as their own.

PPS encouraged all teachers who have questions about COBRA to contact the trust office at 503-486-2107 or by email at [email protected].

The change will put new stress on the Oregon Education Association, the state’s teachers union. The OEA provides the Teachers’ Relief Fund, where members who actively participate in strike activities earn $120 per day. The union did not want to comment on how much money is in their fund.

The district says the total cost of COBRA for all active, current benefit-eligible members for the month of December is $5,118,784 — the amount OEA will seek if they actually cover everyone’s transition to COBRA.

In an email to WW, OEA President Reed Scott-Schwalbach called the county’s plan to cut off health insurance an “unaffordable tactic” that could trigger legal action.

“I want to make this clear: OEA will ensure that our members in Portland have access to health insurance until they can secure a fair contract,” Scott-Schwalbach said. “But the very notion that PPS is threatening to end ill-gotten health benefits for Portland families in an attempt to intimidate educators into abandoning the student-centered proposals they are fighting for is not only shameful, but also demonstrates once again that the district does not focused on getting the job done to get a fair deal and get kids back in the classrooms.”

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