Culver City Teachers Seek New Health Benefits

Times Staff Writer

Culver City teachers have presented a 230-signature petition to the city's Board of Education in an attempt to pressure the teachers union and the Culver City Unified School District into negotiating for lifetime health benefits for teachers.

Howard Bennett, a teacher at Culver City High School, said the American Federation of Teachers, the union with bargaining authority in the city, has not been aggressive enough in asking for lifetime health insurance coverage, a benefit granted to all teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District and more than 100 other districts in the state.

Bennett, a member of the federation, circulated a petition last month asking that health benefits for Culver City teachers be extended for life. Benefits are terminated at age 65.

Nearly 90% of the district's teachers, 230 of about 260, signed the petition, which Bennett presented to the school board Tuesday night.

The union says that money is tight in the district and that teachers would have to give up salary raises to pay for the increased coverage.

Bennett disagrees.

"You shouldn't have to bargain away the right for a decent living wage in order to secure yourself medically after you've become too old to work," he said.

Priority Sought

He said he wants the extension of health benefits to be a priority during salary and benefit negotiations.

Diane Kaiser, federation bargaining representative for Culver City, said a proposal to extend health benefits was on the table last year and will be again in two weeks when negotiations start for next year.

But she was not optimistic about its chances of being granted.

"Although we all want it, I don't know how at this time it will be logistically possible," she said, estimating the cost of the benefits at $5,000 a year for each 65-year-old retired teacher.

Kaiser, also a teacher at Culver City High School, said if the union pushes for extending health benefits, "there would be no salary increases for umpteen years."

But Bennett called such statements by a union representative "irresponsible and unconscionable."

He said most teachers in the district have neither Social Security nor Medicare benefits. "I don't buy that argument that you have to give up 10, 15 years of raises (to extend health benefits past 65)," he said. "That sounds like management talking and I challenge that."

Expense Cited

Ralph Villani, assistant superintendent who handles negotiations for the school district, said that extending health benefits would be "inordinately expensive."

He said the district is already paying about $100,000 a year for health insurance for teachers who retired before they were 65.

Villani predicted that a U.S. House of Representatives resolution and a corresponding item in the proposed 1987-88 federal budget would settle the issue by the end of the year by making all teachers eligible for Medicare coverage.

One of Bennett's differences with Villani centers on teachers who may not pay into the Medicare system long enough to become eligible for benefits. He said the district should address that problem. Villani said the problem will be taken care of by federal action.

Ellen Patterson, manager of the Social Security unit of the state public employee retirement system, said that teachers hired since March 1, 1986, are eligible for Medicare when they reach 65. She said that in the past, teachers and other government employees were not eligible.

Teachers eligible for Medicare pay 1.45% of their salary and their employer pays a matching amount for the benefit, according to Patterson.

Barbara Wells, a math teacher at Culver City High School, said she signed Bennett's petition and shares his views.

"Right at the time when your medical costs are going up they cut off your medical benefits," she said. "I think it's totally unfair."

Wells, 49, said the district should find out how other small school districts pay for lifetime health benefits and do likewise.

Asked if she would like to see extended health benefits made a priority by the union, Wells, a federation member, replied, "I certainly do think it's a priority. If, as Howard (Bennett) says, some 90% signed his petition, it's a priority."

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