Insurance hike may sting workers

School support staff say they won't be able to afford impending increase in health care costs

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Custodians, teacher aides and administrative assistants at Juneau's public schools are asking the school district for help in covering a big hike in their insurance rates. Employees told the School Board on Tuesday that the increases would drive some of them from their jobs and make it hard to hire replacements.

"We are important to the schools, and many of us are looking for other employment," said Kelly Petersen, the registrar at Juneau-Douglas High School.

About 40 union members crowded into the board room at Tuesday night's meeting.

The School Board and district administrators discussed the issue in a closed-door session after the regular meeting, and Superintendent Gary Bader said this morning that the district would try to help the employees.

Board members "were very concerned about the insurance condition for this group of employees and want us to meet with them and try to make some progress to try to close the gap," Bader said. "We're going to see if we can provide some assistance on this."

The roughly 260 members of the Juneau Education Support Staff face having to pay about $228 a month for health insurance starting in April. They now pay nothing, and the school district pays $496 a month for each support staff member. The district's contract with the union caps the district's payments at $500.

The district's insurance provider, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, is asking for the increases to cover the medical costs from five serious illnesses and injuries, union President Laura Mulgrew told the board.

Most of the union's members make less than $14 an hour, Mulgrew said in an interview.

"The problem is, if the insurance goes up I will not be able to continue to work for the school district," Bill Burk, a special education assistant at JDHS, told the board.

The payments would be especially hard on employees who work nine or 10 months a year, because they would have to pay their summer premiums out of paychecks from April and May, employees said.

Bruce Ludwig, business manager for the American Public Employees Association/American Federation of Teachers, of which JESS is a local affiliate, asked the School Board to pick up the increase "at this point," while it looks for a different insurance carrier.

The district plans to request proposals for an insurance carrier soon, but Superintendent Bader said previous requests haven't produced bids with lower rates.

"But it's worth a try," he said.

It would cost the school district about $700,000 to cover the employees' share of the premiums for a year, said Director of Administrative Services Zachary Hanna.

Mulgrew, the JESS president, told the board that it was inequitable that the district pays $550 for teachers' premiums but only $500 for support staffers' premiums. She asked the board to at least match what it pays for teachers' premiums. And she said it was unfair that the contract for the principals' union allows it to negotiate with the district if its members' premiums go up, but JESS isn't allowed to. The JESS contract runs through June 30, 2003.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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