Ann Arbor schools employees to lose domestic partner benefits June 30
Teachers in the Ann Arbor Public Schools are set to lose insurance benefits for their same-sex and domestic partners starting June 30, as a result of the union opening its contract to take a 3 percent pay cut.
Just two things could prevent this from happening: a ruling on a grievance filed against the Ann Arbor school district, or a ruling on a lawsuit against Gov. Rick Snyder filed in federal district court that involves two Ann Arbor schools couples.
The AAEA unions for teachers, paraeducators and office professionals negotiated amendments in March to their collective bargaining agreements to help the district address a then-estimated $17 million to $20 million deficit for the 2013-14 academic year.
The ratified contract agreements — which included a one-year 3 percent wage concession — saved the AAPS $3.4 million and brought the district's projected budget shortfall down from about $12 million to its current $8.67 million figure.
In addition to helping the district with its financial crisis, a primary purpose of passing the amended contract was to ensure the agreements were safe from Michigan's new Right to Work Law. The five-year amendments were approved by the Board of Education the day before the law went into effect.
Right to Work prohibits unions from mandating dues from the employees they represent. The AAEA contracts passed in March amended various language in the bargaining unit's master agreement affirming the union has the right to collect membership dues.
But what union members didn't know when they voted to approve these amendments was that opening the existing contract would enact House Bill 4770, which Snyder signed into law in December 2011 and now is called the Public Employee Domestic Partner Benefit Restriction Act.
'Surprise' and a history of coverage
AAEA President Linda Carter said she and members alike were "very surprised" to learn about the letters from the district stating couples would lose their insurance benefits — including comprehensive medical, dental and vision insurance — as of June 30.
"Neither side knew of the implications of the domestic partner law. ... It did not come up in discussions because we didn't open the entire contract for full-blown negotiations," Carter said. "We were really trying to get (the amendments) through — to be perfectly honest — because of Right to Work."
So, she added, the domestic partner benefits implications didn't even cross her mind.
The AAEA filed a grievance against the district on Tuesday pertaining to the loss of benefits and refuting Comsa's legal opinion that the law needed to take effect.
"We have our MEA (Michigan Education Association) legal staff working on this," Carter said. "We are in this for the long haul. We are going to fight on behalf of our members. ... We are hoping we can carve out a solution here. Our members have families, they have children, and we want to come to an amicable resolution."
The Act, according to Comsa's letter to the teachers, outlaws public schools and government bodies from offering benefits to anyone whom resides with a public employee and is not one or more of the following:
- Married to the employee,
- A dependent of the employee as defined by the Internal Revenue Code, or
- Otherwise eligible to inherit from the employee under the laws of succession in the state.
Comsa wrote this prohibition applies when a collective bargaining contract or agreement expires or is "amended, expanded or renewed."
District officials said there are fewer than 25 people affected by the loss of benefits. Carter estimated that number at 14 to 18 people. However, she added this fight isn't necessarily about the broad reach or the impact, but rather it's about right and wrong.
But the Ann Arbor Public Schools is a proponent of domestic partner benefits, said district spokeswoman Liz Margolis.
"AAPS does not believe this is the right law for our employees and have done all we can to allow for partner benefits," Margolis said. "It is interesting that the governor does not think this law applies to university or civil service employees, but (he) has not come out with a statement about K-12 employees. Thus, we are required to follow the law."
Margolis said it is the belief of the district's legal counsel that the law effectively eliminated the district's "Other Eligible Adults" policy. The policy allowed coverage for a person 26 years of age or older, who is not a dependent or an undocumented immigrant, to be eligible for health benefits under an employee's insurance policy. Other requirements for receiving benefits under the district's policy were: residing together for 18 months, not married to another party, not related by blood and not a tenant or boarder.
"AAPS has worked tirelessly to allow for partner benefits, which we believe is the right thing to do," Margolis said.
The district has offered these benefits since about 1993, Carter said, adding AAPS followed in suit with this policy after a similar policy was created at the University of Michigan.
"We were pace-setters," she said.
Peter Ways, a teacher at Ann Arbor Open, is one AAPS employee affected by the district's decision to discontinue domestic partner benefits.
"I blame the legislature and the governor, not the district or the union," he said.
Awaiting a federal ruling
Ways and his partner of more than 20 years, Joe Breakey, are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed against Snyder in January 2012, attempting to strike down the Domestic Partner Benefits Restriction Act. Slauson Middle School teacher Theresa Bassett and her partner, Carol Kennedy, also are named in the litigation.
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com file photo
The teachers say they are dumbfounded it has taken so long for a ruling on the case.
"Many feel like many cases along these same lines are being delayed, (and lower courts) are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule," Bassett said.
After the Ann Arbor Public Schools letter was issued stating employees' domestic partner benefits would end June 30, the ACLU attorneys made contact with the judge and were told the judge would hand down a ruling before June 30.
ACLU Lawyer Jay Kaplan said if the judge does not rule in favor of the plaintiffs by June 30, all of the plaintiffs in the case, which include three other gay and lesbian couples from Kalamazoo and East Lansing, will have lost their benefits since the lawsuit was filed — and none of the employers have wanted to eliminate the domestic partner benefits, he added.
"The law has had unfortunate consequences thus far. ... There have not been any (employers of the plaintiffs) that have been in support of that (cutting the benefits)," Kaplan said. "The public employers want a diverse workforce, and they realize that they have to recognize the diversity of the families that work for them and that people that do the same work as their colleagues have a right to the same benefits, including health insurance. ... It's the right thing to do."
The biggest thing is the families and spreading awareness, Bassett told AnnArbor.com.
"Some may not know that coverage doesn't end just for our partners, but also for any children that have not had the benefit of being adopted by the insured parent," Bassett said. "This is our case. But I did add our youngest as a dependent on my taxes two years ago, just in case this turned out negatively for us."
Bassett and Kennedy have six children, ranging from elementary school age to 25. The women have been a couple for more than 25 years and were legally married in California in 2008, according to the lawsuit.
Bassett has been an employee of AAPS for 28 years, while Kennedy has been self-employed as a day care provider since 1993, court documents show. Because Kennedy is self-employed, she does not have access to her own employer-provided benefits plan. Her family also has a history of breast cancer, making independent health care coverage for Kennedy and most of the couple's children very expensive, the lawsuit says.
Bassett said some of the AAEA members did take issue with the way the district and the union handled the loss of benefits. She said people did ask at the AAEA meeting about the contract negotiations and whether amending the contract for the 3 percent pay cuts would put the partner benefits in jeopardy.
"We were told no," she said.
She added the other issue was the letter Comsa sent came in an overall package of information regarding open enrollment for benefits.
"To many," Bassett said, "it is junk mail and gets tossed, as few of us are changing our coverage. We know that many did not read it and have no knowledge that the benefits end."
Kaplan and the teachers acknowledged the district has been very supportive of the lawsuit and has provided various affidavits and insurance information to the ACLU to help with the case. All parties are hoping for a favorable outcome in the ruling by the federal judge that will save AAPS employees' domestic partner benefits before they end June 30.
Comsa said in his letter to teachers in late April, "if there is a change that affects the Other Eligible Adult coverage you will be updated, however, in the interim, we are prohibited by law from providing the coverage."