Cleveland-Heights University-Heights schools say it will cut benefits for teachers who strike

Updated: Nov. 27, 2020 at 8:02 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - The Cleveland-Heights University-Heights school district decided Monday they will stop paying for healthcare benefits for any of the 500 members of their teachers union who go on strike on Dec. 2.

That announcement comes after the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, which represents 500 staffers in the district, filed a 10-day strike notice starting Dec. 2, after months of bargaining sessions with the school district.

[RELATED: Cleveland Heights-University Heights teachers warn they’ll strike if contract negotiations with district fail]

The sticking point in the negotiation is healthcare benefits.

The district is in a grim financial position and the current healthcare package - which includes no deductibles or copays - is overly generous, said Jodi Sourini, president of the board of education. The district wants to increase the share of the premium paid by employees from 6% to 15% and add copays and deductibles to the healthcare plan.

The union says that their membership was able to negotiate the current benefits plan by foregoing pay increases in previous years. The changes proposed by the district add up to a $3,000-$5,000 loss in annual compensation for individual teachers, according to a press release.

The announcement to stop health benefits for striking employees represents a significant escalation in tensions between the district and the union as negotiations have become increasingly acrimonious.

In a press release, the district said that striking employees should have known that loss of pay and benefits is part of going on strike.

“That is the definition of a strike - employees choose to walk away from their compensation in order to influence terms and conditions of employment,” Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby and Sourini, the board president, wrote in a press release. “We sincerely hope Union leadership informed its members of this and what choosing to strike means.”

The union said the move is retaliation for the strike notice.

“This outrageous move by our Board of Education is a heavy-handed attempt to quash our collective action by taking away our health insurance during the peak of a global pandemic,” said Karen Rego, the union president in a press release.

The decision to stop the benefits was “incredibly difficult,” according to the district’s press release. But the district is legally obligated to cease “wages and benefits... for public sector employees in Ohio under state law.”

But Joe Diemert, a Cleveland attorney who has practiced public employment law for 40 years, said the section of law the district is citing to justify the stoppage only discusses compensation - not healthcare benefits.

Diemert said that, in his experience, the revocation of health benefits during a contract negotiation or a strike is unusual.

The district said in the press release that there are two ways workers can continue their health benefits: they can pay for them through COBRA while they strike or they can continue to work.

“Just as the Union has the legal right to call for a strike, the District has the legal right to make work available to any bargaining unit member who wants to work during the strike,” the superintendent and board president wrote in the release. “Teachers who choose to continue to work will continue to receive their pay and benefits.”

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