Faculty Forced to Fight for Healthcare

In the midst of a pandemic and a transition to online teaching, faculty demand to keep their health and retirement benefits as promised

Update, April 11, 8:44 p.m.:

Mt. SAC President William Scroggins replied to SAC.Media’s request for comment.

“Unfortunately, this matter is in active negotiations with the Faculty Association so I cannot comment,” Scroggins stated.

Update, April 11, 5:15 p.m.:

SAC.Media has reached out to Mt. SAC President William Scroggins and the Board of Trustees for comment, and are awaiting their reply.

Gary Chow, one of the board members of the Mt. SAC Board of Trustees, replied, “This topic is under negotiation at this time and I am unable to make any public comment at this time.”

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Faculty members are working around the clock to shift their classes and services online as the coronavirus pandemic grows outside of their homes. Now, in the midst of a pandemic and no way to protest on campus, faculty are once again fighting for their health benefits.

With the college closed down due to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter in place order, the Mt. SAC Board of Trustees have moved its meetings online and public comments were moved to a time before the board met for closed session.

At last night’s Board of Trustees meeting, faculty members had to submit public comments in advance to be read by Carol Nelson, executive assistant, at the live recorded meeting on YouTube. Faculty were not allowed to be in the video call.

The fight for their healthcare first began in 2018 when faculty members gathered and protested at several Board of Trustees meetings in order to keep California Public Employees’ Retirement System, known as CalPERS, as their medical carrier, while the district planned to shift employees to Self-Insured Schools of California, known as SISC. Faculty members fought to keep CalPERS because it would guarantee them lifetime health benefits even after they retire, as promised in their contracts.

English professor Gary Enke was one of the leaders in the faculty movement. In a video produced for faculty, Enke said, “PERS was created by the state of California to protect employees both while working and in retirement. SISC was created by school districts to serve the interests of those districts.”

In an interview with SAC.Media, Enke explained that the district said they would continue to give employees lifetime benefits under SISC. However, he said that the district could change what these benefits are, but it would be different with CalPERS, as CalPERS determines what the lifetime benefits are. According to Enke, there would be no guarantee that the lifetime benefits would not change under SISC and affect employees after retirement.

As a result, faculty members organized several protests at board meetings to keep their carrier as CalPERS. Faculty members also marched in April 2019 and May 2019 outside of Founders Hall, where they chanted for equity. After over a year of protests, the district reached an agreement with faculty in June 2019, allowing faculty members to remain with CalPERS.

However, as the coronavirus pandemic ravages the country, faculty are finding inequities in their health benefits with employees under SISC, even as they work to suddenly move all of their classes online in the middle of the semester.

“Last year, the issue was that they wanted to push us into SISC and leave CalPERS, and we weren’t willing to, largely because of the protections that were offered through state law,” Enke said. “This year, the issue is that the amount that the district contributes to faculty health care is much less for what are called two-party and three-party.”

Two-party refers to a family composed of two people, which may be a married couple or a parent with a child. Three-party refers to a family of three or more people.

Faculty members have said that they have had to pay for healthcare by themselves as a result, and that this is an effort from the college to have faculty members move to SISC.

This concern subsequently led to over 45 minutes of public comment from faculty members demanding that they receive the same benefits as employees insured under SISC.

English professor Francisco Gomez had previously spoken to the board in March 2019 about his and his mother’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. Faculty members comforted Gomez as he fought tears at that meeting, expressing his concern about how his health benefits, if under SISC, would impact his and his mother’s insurance. His mother in particular had lost her lifetime health benefits.

Now that COVID-19 is spreading across the nation and faculty work to shift their classes online due to the college’s closure, Gomez had more to say. He criticized the college’s messages to faculty amidst the pandemic, writing that “faculty have only received two emails in this entire time paying lip service as to how much we are appreciated without any action to demonstrate so.”

“As it stands, over a third of my base pay simply goes to pay for health insurance,” Gomez added. “Administrators, who at best are clueless, at worst heartless, have sent emails in the midst of this pandemic providing peppy advice for online teaching.”

English professor Michael Harper said that faculty have been working hard despite the challenges of the online transition, but added that the college is sending empty praise.

“At this point, every word of praise we receive only serves to remind us of how empty this praise really is, and the reality is that we are not truly appreciated by the administration that continues to deny us the just treatment that we deserve,” Harper added.

Biology professor Cynthia Shannon, who has taught at the college for 29 years, also spoke last spring in front of the board with her 8-year-old daughter next to her. She said that she was grateful for CalPERS when she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2018, having undergone six surgeries, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

“I felt listened to by the board last spring. I feel that in good faith, the faculty of Mt. SAC were told that PERS was going to remain as the faculty health plan,” Shannon said at the April 8 meeting. “But now, at a time when we are stressed and doing all we can for our students, it seems leverage-based negotiations are dominating from the administration.”

Additionally, student equity and outreach librarian Eva Rios-Alvarado had submitted a public comment for the first time at this meeting.

“As a woman of color and higher education, I am sadly used to being discriminated against and treated unjustly,” Rios-Alvarado wrote. “The events that transpired on our campus add to that narrative, and my reality is in the college setting.”

Rios-Alvarado then went on to cite demographics of communities that are largely affected by the pandemic.

“As you should know, low-wealth, undocumented, black, brown and indigenous communities are the most impacted by COVID-19, and the social ramifications which impact these communities the most runs deep,” Rios-Alvarado stated. “Our campus is majority Latina. Thinking about the demographics of students, staff and faculty, I ask you to take accountability and do what is right moving forward. I ask you to increase our healthcare contributions and not force faculty to move to SISC.”

The inequities faculty brought up are not only about health benefits. According to multiple faculty members’ public comments, there has also been inequity in salary raises, as well as the populations of students and faculty compared to managers.

The faculty members who brought up the inequities wrote that the average salary for an administrator had increased by more than $29,000 from fall 2011 to fall 2018, while faculty members have had their average salaries increased by about $11,000 in that same time period. Scroggins became Mt. SAC’s president in June 2011.

They also stated that student full time equivalencies, known as FTES, have gone up by 10%, and full-time faculty FTES have gone up 12% under Scroggins’ leadership. In contrast, they stated that manager FTES have gone up 45%.

“This is an unprecedented spike unique to his [Scroggins] tenure,” their comments read.

FTES stands for full-time equivalent students. According to Enke, in the context of the comments, FTES refers to the populations of these groups.

Moreover, these faculty members wrote that according to the state controller’s office, Scroggins’ total retirement and health contributions paid by Mt. SAC was $91,988 in 2018, which would make him the second highest recipient of these benefits out of all of California community college employees.

Several other professors also criticized the cleanliness of the college as the COVID-19 pandemic evolved.

American language professor and department chair Barbara Mezaki previously spoke in front of the board at the March 11 meeting. She reiterated that the college focuses on creating more buildings, but neglects to maintain them, resulting in a lack of clean learning and working environments.

“I mentioned that Mt. SAC is being hypocritical by recruiting international students who pay top dollar to learn here, but not providing a top dollar environment,” Mezaki wrote.

Mezaki then commented on equity, stating that faculty health benefits are not being funded on the same level as classified employees who are under SISC. She also stated that the administration has had a “bullying stance” towards faculty under CalPERS.

“Now Mt. SAC faculty is working hard to provide quality online instruction to meet student needs equitably during this pandemic,” Mezaki wrote. “So it is disheartening that this college administration is not being equitable, but rather wants to bully the hard working faculty.”

Enke submitted comments and additionally expressed outrage at the college’s cleanliness amidst the pandemic.

He said that if he could have been present at the meeting, he would have looked at the board members in the eye and asked them questions regarding the maintenance of the college’s facilities, the college’s prior response to the pandemic before the closure and the inequities in faculty members’ health benefits.

Enke, who is immunocompromised, shared his public statement for the board with faculty members.

It states:

“If I were with you this evening, in the midst of a pandemic, I would ask you some questions because I am puzzled by your behavior towards me and my colleagues.

I would ask why, in the midst of a pandemic, when COVID-19 can survive on hard surfaces for several hours, the College President refused to order the cleaning of already filthy and unhygienic classrooms, labs, and centers, thereby endangering the health of students, classified staff, and faculty.

I would ask why, in the midst of a pandemic, when public health agencies were urging frequent washing of hands, that soap and paper towels were not replenished at sufficient intervals, and the College President refused to provide hand sanitizing stations, claiming they were too expensive—all while planning the costly gala opening of his new stadium.

I would ask why, in the midst of a pandemic, my colleagues and I had to request the intervention of Supervisor Hilda Solis to force you to shift classes online.

I would ask why, in the midst of a pandemic, when faculty and classified staff were dealing with children suddenly home from school, spouses unexpectedly unemployed, and the dislocation of rapidly shifting instruction to remote in delivery, the Vice President of Human Resources responded with rigid inhumanity, demanding ‘proof’ that schools were closed—when all he had to do was watch the news—and requiring doctor’s letters from those who might be ill—when the CDC and health care providers were urging employers not to do so.

I would ask why, in the midst of a pandemic, when faculty asked their deans and associate deans for public statements of support, those same deans, who claim to value our hard work to maintain continuity of instruction, remained silent and aloof.

Finally, I would ask why, in the midst of a pandemic, you continue to deny the same amount of funding for health insurance to faculty that you give to every other employee group—and to yourselves.

The only answer that I can find to these questions is that you just don’t care.

Our health, our hard work, and our emotional wellbeing just don’t matter to you.

What matters is that we generate the money that you don’t see fit to share with us.”

Enke later posted a video of him reading his comments himself out loud on Facebook, as he could not do so at the virtual meeting.

Moreover, Faculty Association President and mathematics professor Joan Sholars said in her report that the FA met with the district on April 3 to negotiate, but they did not come to an agreement on salary and health benefits.

She then went on to speak about the health benefit concerns of faculty, saying that she was wrong in believing what the district’s intentions were after hours of negotiations.

Sholars went on to cite and read an email she received from a faculty member whose wife works at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton. In the email, the faculty member stated that their wife has to perform exams on patients that require them to cough to see what they can safely swallow.

“She’s been wearing a N95 mask with a surgical mask over that, face shield, gown, and gloves. The mask stays on all day. It sucks,” the email stated. “I’ve got two little boys who need their mom. When she gets home she comes in through the garage, throws her clothes in the wash and goes straight to the shower. We’ve got no grandparents to help and home schooling my little monsters is brutal.”

“Add to that this transition to ‘remote blah blah blah’ and I’m maxed out. My students are completely phoning it in and I’m catching tons of plagiarism,” the email continues. “And now to top it off I hear that my employer is trying to squeeze a few extra bucks out of my health benefits plan during what appears to be some kind of 21st century plague.”

Sholars said that this is one email out of many she has received.

“I will conclude my report with faculty only want equity. Yes, I know, and we know, that you, the board, are worried about the future. But you have a good reserve that is supposed to be used on a rainy day,” Sholars said. “We need it now. We need the district to step up and show faculty that Mt. SAC truly is the best place to work because Mt. SAC cares.”

The Mt. SAC Board of Trustees will meet again on May 13. Faculty plan to once again be heard through public comments.

SAC.Media Managing editor Ferry Baylon contributed to this report.