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Will I Lose My Benefits if I Leave My Union?

The question we receive most frequently from public employees is, “Will I lose my benefits if I leave my union?” To answer this question, I’m bringing in my 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 oversight 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

Elisabeth Messenger

Elisabeth Messenger is CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Elisabeth was in the publicity department at Atlantic Records in Los Angeles, CA. From there, she learned how to build organizations that would impact culture through positions in operations and business development at Universal Music Group, VEVO, and Beats Music.