Part-timers take advantage of law that allows them to receive health coverage

In the working world commonly referred to as the private sector, employees often scramble to gain benefits such as health insurance.

Often, they will work for several years as a part-timer with no insurance hoping that some day they’ll be put on as a full-time employee, and therefore have access to all benefits.

In some cases, they work up to 34 hours a week and are still part-time. It’s an old system and it’s a way that companies often use to reward dedicated employees.

It’s not the case in city government though, and due to an obscure state law, part-time workers for the city qualify for full health and dental insurance, even if they work as few as 20 hours a week.

And it’s costing the city about $300,000 a year.

“The issue of part-time employees deserves a lot more attention than its gotten,” said Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, an independent state government watchdog organization. “What you’ve discovered is one more item in a long list of things that are driving up municipal health costs.”

A review of the city’s employment records showed that there are 16 part-time workers that take the city’s health insurance plan and an additional two part-timers that take the city’s dental plan.

Some work just 21.5 hours per week.

A health insurance plan costs the city a total of $21,000 per person. However, employees do pick up a portion of the cost. Minus that contribution, the city pays $17,850 per person for health insurance and $454 per person for dental.

Doing the math, it means the city pays out $285,600 per year just to offer health insurance to part-time workers – something virtually unheard of in private sector employment.

“This is one more example where public sector benefits are much more generous than the private sector,” said Widmer. “It’s preposterous and unfair. What we’ve seen over the last 10 years is the erosion of private sector benefits and at the same time public sector benefits have had no change or very limited change by comparison. It’s not sustainable because the result will only mean more and more layoffs of public employees because the state’s not going to be bailing anyone out anytime soon.”

The situation isn’t unique to Revere.

All across the state, situation is the same where cities and towns have part-time workers getting full-time benefits per state law.

Widmer also pointed out that part-time employees still qualify for full retirement medical benefits after 10 years – which just adds on to the existing problem.

“Another thing about part-timers is after 10 years they are eligible for retirement medical benefits at the same level as full-time employees,” he said. “There is no adjustment for the fact they have been part-time and worked only about half the time of a full-time employee.”

Mayor Tom Ambrosino played down the part-timer issue, saying it isn’t a big problem in Revere because only a “handful” of employees are in that situation.

“We don’t really have a lot of part-time employees,” he said. “Generally, you hold them under 20 hours. That’s why there are a lot of workers who only work 19 hours. There are some instances where we try to entice workers with health benefits. There have been some positions – some in the library – where the pay is pathetic and we offered them health insurance benefits to attract them. The law is easy to work with and around.”

But it isn’t library employees that are using the part-timer benefit in large numbers. Rather, it’s Revere’s own City Council.

The review of employment data found that six of the 11 city councillors take health insurance – at a cost of $53,550 a year. They make up a good portion of the 16 total part-timers taking the benefit.

An additional three city councillors have health insurance through the city’s retirement system, and they are not counted in the total of 16.

One councillor takes only the city’s dental plan.

In sum, 10 Revere City Councillors accept some kind of benefit from the city, and at the moment, due to a vacancy in the Ward 1 post, there are only 10 city councillors.

The remaining 10 part-timers, outside of city councillors, that take health insurance serve in various capacities within City Hall.

Widmer said that the part-time issue is important, but other municipal health insurance reforms are needed in addition to it.

“The idea of plan design, that’s a hugely important issue in this discussion,” he said.

Mayor Ambrosino said big-ticket savings on things like plan design push part-timer benefits off his radar screen.

“It’s not a top priority,” he said. “I’m not really concentrating on $300,000 when I’m trying to get something to save the city $4 million a year. My priority is reform.”

Back to the drawing board where ‘plan design’ is concerned

It was the municipal unions that seemed to carry a big win during the recent passage of the State Budget, getting legislators to balk on a proposed amendment that would allow Plan Design Municipal Health Insurance.

Unions and city officials – including Mayor Tom Ambrosino – had been conducting intense negotiations on the subject in April and May, only to see those discussions fizzle out during the past several weeks.

That led to the Legislature voting down a measure to allow plan design.

Plan design would allow cities and towns to change certain parts of health insurance plans without having to negotiate with the affected unions. As it is now, changes to health insurance can be used as a bargaining chip for the unions.

Revere stood to save an estimated $4 million per year had it been allowed to institute plan design.

Mayor Ambrosino said that some mayors are now pushing for a ballot question to be included on the 2012 ballot.

However, he said he believes there is still hope at the negotiating table.

“I think we should re-engage the union,” said the mayor. “If we don’t pursue some change, something much worse could happen to them. I don’t think they would want to put to the voters of the Commonwealth whether or not municipal union members should get $5 doctor visits.”

Revere’s municipal health plan increased by more than $1 million this year.

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