Local 21 has been in heavy bargaining with Solano County for the past six months. Despite an improving local economy and increased costs associated with living in one of the most expensive regions in the Country, the employer approached negotiations seeking significant concessions from County unions.
The most significant of these concessions is the County’s proposal to move away from a percentage contribution by the employer toward employees’ health care, which is currently at a 75-25 percent employer-employee contribution ratio.
Needless to say, Local 21 members do not support this idea, including Ciara Gonsalves, 29, Contract and Program Specialist at the County’s Children and Families Commission. Aside from her work with the agency, she is also a mother who is struggling with the rising cost of healthcare for herself and her two small children.
Tired of switching pediatricians year after year to keep healthcare costs low for herself and her two small children, Gonsalves waxes nostalgic about the days when she grew up with a family doctor. She is well aware though how things have changed.
“I’m bouncing my kids around from pediatrician to pediatrician, year after year, and there’s no real relationship anymore with the doctors,” she said. “Personally, since I’ve started with the County, I’ve changed my health plan three times.”
The reason, of course, was cost. Gonsalves reported that her out-of-pocket monthly expenses reached $600 per month last year, which prompted her to switch to Kaiser, her third carrier in three years. Now she “only” pays $400 per month.
“There’s no choice now. You’re pushed into this little box. There’s no true cafeteria plan anymore,” she lamented.
And precisely because of this, healthcare has been the hot topic of Solano County bargaining since negotiations began in April. This was one of the reasons Gonsalves was pleased when asked to join the L21 bargaining team, where she could literally take her expertise on the topic to the table.
“I started talking a lot about healthcare for young families,” she said. “I was vocalizing my opinions, so my rep asked me if I would be interested in sharing them.”
Solano County’s proposal calls for a flat dollar contribution, in addition to language that would shift the burden of any increase in costs associated with the Affordable Care Act’s “Cadillac Tax” in 2018 away from the employer and onto the employee. This second takeaway would fundamentally change the way that health care benefits are paid for in Solano County and come at the expense of employees’ take home pay.
However, Gonsalves realizes that the healthcare problem extends well beyond Solano County. The local bargaining challenges, she says, are endemic to how the whole health care system works in this country – or doesn’t.
“It’s not even so much the employer but the health insurance providers,” she explained. The solution to the problem, therefore, is to leverage union power in order to encourage the employer to negotiate lower rates with the insurance companies.
When asked about her personal takeaway from her work on the Solano County L21 bargaining team, Gonsalves said she first had to overcome her initial reservations about becoming involved in her union.
“I was really scared how that would affect me career-wise, about what my employer would think,” she said. But as time moved on, Gonsalves came to realize that her involvement at Local 21 gave her the opportunity to not only get to know her job and her employer better, but also to work more closely with the County. “It was a chance to respectfully negotiate together,” Gonsalves explained. “I feel empowered as a go-to resource for others in my unit. When asked the questions, I know the answers. It’s a really good feeling.”
On top of her passion for healthcare issues, another important reason Gonsalves joined the Solano bargaining team was her desire to be a voice for a new generation of Local 21 members. Gonsalves added that she would strongly encourage other young people to get involved in their union. “That way,” she said, “you’re able to work with your employer on issues that are important to all of us.”