Negotiations concerning the contract that was recently denied by NMU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) will resume on Friday, Oct. 16. At this meeting, many issues of contention will be discussed, including the Household Member Program (HMP), with which many professors have expressed unhappiness.
The program was previously called Same Sex Domestic Partner Benefits and benefited primarily gay faculty. The policy was changed in the new contract to the HMP for legal reasons. With this change, however, the benefits that were formerly very secure have been compromised.
“What you had was a secure health care benefit that was in every way NMU could make it, as good as for married couples, [but] it wasn’t subject to any review, so this was a substantial step back for Northern,” said Cate Terwilliger, an English professor at NMU and one of the faculty members who enrolled in these benefits and will be affected by the HMP that is approved by the final negotiating committee.
The former program was changed due to the “Defense of Marriage Amendment” that was passed in 2004 in Michigan and reinforced in 2007 with a decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals saying that benefits for same-sex partners also cannot be recognized in public institutions. This meant that institutions like Northern had to remove any language that recognized same-sex partnerships.
In order to do this, they changed the name to HMP to include any person who lives in a home with a member of NMU faculty, same or opposite sex. They also added a provision that makes it possible for administration to change, suspend or terminate the program at any time.
With this wording, Terwilliger e-mailed members of the AAUP expressing the importance of stability in these benefits because as it is stated, her partner risks losing coverage at any time.
“If you would not put this benefit on the chopping block for your conventionally married faculty, then as a matter of principle you can’t do that to your gay faculty,” Terwilliger said. “It’s that simple.”
The contract was brought back to the negotiating table between administration and the AAUP negotiating team. The program still remains a one-year pilot program, to be reviewed annually.
There are two major issues that stand in the way of making the HMP more secure: legality and cost. According to Ann Sherman, director of Human Resources and the Equal Opportunity Officer at NMU, expanding the program to reach more than just same-sex couples may create an influx of enrolled faculty which would create a larger cost to the university; they cannot predict how many people will take advantage of this program.
“We could have a rather large intake. We just don’t know if we can afford that because it’s an unknown,” Sherman said.
Taxes placed on this program create a disincentive for many people, which Terwilliger says makes large enrollment unlikely. The IRS recognizes these programs as additional income which means that they are taxed like any other superfluous benefits. Last year, Terwilliger paid $1,600 in taxes for these benefits.
Another obstacle for secure benefits programs is legality. It is possible that any of these HMP programs, including Northern’s, could be challenged and brought before the court if it is felt that the wording goes against the amendment.
“If it turns out that we are not legally able to provide this, then it has to come out,” Sherman said.
Grand Valley State University provides an HMP that allows not only health care benefits but other faculty advantages like tuition reduction, adoption assistance and recreation and wellness center benefits. A state legislator asked Michigan attorney general Michael Cox whether this program is constitutional; he has not given his opinion.
According to Jay Kaplan, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project Staff Attorney for the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union, as long as the language of the HMP doesn’t blatantly go against the law, Northern is not at risk to be challenged. He also said that if any public entity, including Northern, were to be sued even though their language is clear, the ACLU would support them pro-bono.
“We feel very strongly about this; we don’t want to see public employees dropping coverage or cancelling this program because of this law,” Kaplan said. “There is a way to do this.”
He said, however, that the one-year pilot program is unlikely to provide the best statistical results for how many people might take advantage of the program because people are unlikely to enroll if they cannot rely on the program.
“I think all they need to do is look at other public entities who have initiated this program to see that they don’t have to be so tentative with what they’re offering,” Kaplan said.
Although Terwilliger said that ideally she would like to see a more complete program that offers benefits beyond health care, she realizes that this may be unlikely. She hopes, however, that the negotiating team will consider a 3-year pilot program, which is more likely to provide more realistic results when administration reviews the contract in three years.
“In my view, from both perspectives, a three year program creates security for employees and ensures that the data that they get will be reliable because people will enroll,” Terwilliger said.
According to Lesley Putman, chief negotiator for the AAUP negotiating team and chemistry professor at NMU, extensive benefits will not be on this contract.
“We did not have that (in the last contract), and so what we brought to the table was to continue what we have been doing,” Putman said. “So the extra benefits, those can be for future contracts, but not for this one.”