Medical coverage an issue for District 15 strikers

  • Striking support employees and their supporters, totaling about 300 people, rallied near Palatine Township Elementary District 15 headquarters in the village Wednesday while contract negotiations occurred inside. Contract talks are to resume Sunday.

      Striking support employees and their supporters, totaling about 300 people, rallied near Palatine Township Elementary District 15 headquarters in the village Wednesday while contract negotiations occurred inside. Contract talks are to resume Sunday. Bob Susnjara | Staff Photographer

 
 

Whether medical coverage should have been continued or halted for striking support employees at Palatine Township Elementary District 15 has become a point of contention.

As the strike reached its fifth day Friday, District 15 officials released an Oct. 3 email from school board President Lisa Szczupaj to 454 members of the Educational Support Personnel Association union that outlined what would happen to their benefits if they walked out. The local is affiliated with the Illinois Education Association.

"We do not want members to be surprised," Szczupaj wrote. "We want to make sure that all members are aware that during a strike, all salary, insurance (including prescription drug plans) and other board-paid benefits shall cease for striking members."

But Illinois Education Association spokeswoman Bridget Shanahan said the district was wrong to stop medical coverage for strikers. She said the employees paid in advance for their health benefits and never were given a specific day on when it would be halted.

Shanahan said the strikers, who hit the picket lines about two weeks after Szczupaj's letter, learned on a "rolling basis" this week they were not covered when they tried to use their insurance cards.

District 15 spokeswoman Morgan Delack said the employees will be reimbursed for each day they did not receive insurance coverage that was paid up front. However, Shanahan said many workers cannot afford the upfront expenses and it's unknown when reimbursements would be received.

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Negotiations overseen by a federal mediator are to resume Sunday. Both sides reported progress after a 12-hour session Wednesday.

Union members and district officials also disagree on the status of medical coverage for 168 striking employees ordered back to work Tuesday as a result of a Cook County judge's ruling.

Judge Neil Cohen ruled in favor of a district complaint that sought injunctive relief and a temporary restraining order to prohibit "essential" workers from striking. He ordered striking nurses and special education classroom aides to return to work immediately on the walkout's second day.

Delack said the district quickly contacted BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois to have benefits reinstated for those employees. She said reimbursements will be made for out-of-pocket costs incurred if the insurance did not immediately kick in.

Marla DeNatale, a program assistant for first-grade special education students at Hunting Ridge Elementary School in Palatine, said she checked with BlueCross BlueShield and was told she did not have insurance as of Thursday. DeNatale, a Palatine resident, was one of the employees forced back to work by the judge's order.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

DeNatale said she paid for her health coverage in advance and should not have to wait for reimbursement for prescriptions or medical services.

"I am a single mom with three young kids," said DeNatale, who is paid $11.30 an hour. "My husband died 3½ years ago of cancer. My son has been hospitalized twice in the last six months and is undergoing treatments right now."

Under the currently available public document, District 15 was offering a five-year contract with a 1.85 percent increase in each of the first two years, and 1.85 percent to 2.25 percent annually for the three-year balance to coincide with the applicable tax cap.

The union was seeking a 2.5 percent annual wage hike in each year of a five-year deal, but Shanahan said it would generally amount to 10 to 25 cents more an hour.

Under the previous contract, District 15's wage scale had support employees starting at $11.30 an hour and going up to $37.76 per hour, depending on the job and years of employment. Talks on a new deal began in February.

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