The following is an excerpt from our Saturday email, which includes our musings on the latest developments impacting public employees, links to that week’s labor news, and a collection of whimsical reads for your weekend. If you’d like to receive our weekly email, you can use the sign-up form at the bottom of this page. We promise to respect your inbox, and we will never share your email address.
The question we receive most frequently from public employees is, “Will I lose my benefits if I leave my union?” To answer this question, We talked to our colleague Brigette Herbst. Before joining the AFFT team as New York State Director, she served the kind people of New York as a public-school teacher, a state employee, and a municipal employee.
Q: Brigette, let’s get right down to it. Will a public employee lose their benefits if they leave their union?
A: No. Benefits like health insurance, vision and dental insurance, and retirement funds are negotiated for all the employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement. As a result, a public employee will not lose these benefits if they leave the union.
It’s a confusing subject for public employees to navigate because unions will do sneaky things like tell people that they will be denied access to a benefit fund if they leave the union. But those funds are also collectively bargained and apply to every position in the bargaining unit.
The easiest way I’ve found to explain this to people is by focusing on the job position or title. The position is specifically mentioned in the collective bargaining agreement—not the employee’s name—so that position is guaranteed to receive the wages, terms of employment, and benefits outlined in the contract regardless of who actually has the job.
I often remind public employees that the union is not negotiating for you as an individual but for your position as it relates to the bargaining unit.
Q: You mentioned the term “benefit fund.” What is this and how does it work?
A: To save costs, employers may choose to give a union the authority to run the vision, dental, and/or prescription insurance plans. It’s important to note that benefit funds typically relate to ancillary insurance plans, which are separate from an employee’s health insurance.
So, the union is given a set dollar amount by the employer to purchase vision, dental, and prescription insurance coverage for a group of public employees. The union will then manage the plans. This means they will handle enrollments into the plans, deal with paperwork associated with changing a plan, and answer general questions about a plan. The actual benefits are still provided and paid for by the employer not the union.
There are massive risks to these funds because there is often a lack of oversite of the funds. I am reminded of two powerful examples of how corrupt union officials can mismanage benefit funds – in New York, union officials mismanaged a benefit fund, which resulted in union members finding out their prescription plans weren’t valid when they tried to fill prescriptions at the pharmacy. And in New Jersey, a former union president was charged with embezzling money from an employee benefit fund.
I always encourage anyone who has opted out of their union to contact us immediately if they are denied any benefits in the benefit or welfare fund.
Q: Will an employee lose anything if they leave the union?
A: Depending upon the union, there may be some privileges granted only to union members. These privileges are usually limited to additional insurance policies or discount programs that could be purchased by the individual. Often when we’ve worked with public employees to investigate these additional benefits, we found the employee can purchase these same policies for less money outside of the union. Another common privilege given only to union members is the right to vote in elections or contracts, but again this varies by union.
– Brigette Herbst