Carleton TAs, researchers shocked to find health benefits cut off
4,000 teaching assistants, research assistants, some instructors affected, union says
UPDATE: On February 28, 2019, Carleton University said it has agreed to make an additional contribution of $78,000 to reactivate the depleted Employee Assistance Fund. The university has also agreed to make a contribution of $170,000 to the fund on Sept. 1, 2019.
Teaching assistants, research assistants and some instructors at Carleton University have had their health benefits suspended.
According to their union, the university's Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs (FGPA) has directed Green Shield Canada to stop paying benefits claims to about 4,000 members.
However, the university says they did not direct the insurance company to stop paying — rather, the money in the benefits fund ran out.
In an email to its members, the union said the affected benefits include dental, vision, physiotherapy, chiropractic care, child care and University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP) fee reimbursements for international students.
"This is the first time this has ever happened," said CUPE 4600 president Wesley Petite.
The union represents all teaching assistants, university-funded research assistants and contract instructors at Carleton.
Abigail Curlew, a doctoral student at Carleton who works as a teaching assistant, said she was shocked to find out there was no money left to cover claims.
We pay our fees every year for our union to get health and benefits, and to cut it suddenly in a semester is just awful.- Abigail Curlew, doctoral student and TA
"The immediate sense that I had was a sense of complete betrayal from the senior administration of Carleton University," she said.
"We pay our fees every year for our union to get health and benefits, and to cut it suddenly in a semester is just awful."
Curlew has bipolar disorder and a combination of other undiagnosed psychiatric issues. Without coverage, she said she's facing a huge financial burden.
"The fact that we have just lost a big, significant chunk of our health and dental is going to significantly impact my health and [the health of] other people with disabilities," she said.
Petite said only CUPE 4600 Green Shield benefits are affected. Benefits through other organizations including the Graduate Students' Association aren't affected.
"For example, if you are a graduate TA and you went for a standard cleaning at the dentist, you would currently have 80 per cent of the cost covered by your GSA Green Shield benefits, but you would have to pay the remaining 20 per cent, which would normally be covered by your CUPE 4600 Green Shield benefits," according to the email to members.
Still, Petite said the cut to benefits will put some students in a tough financial situation.
"A lot of our members are going to have to make trade-offs between making rent and or being able to get a physio treatment that they need to be able to sleep without pain, or to get a new pair of glasses ... or to get childcare."
Why has the money run out?
Petite said the university deposited $170,000 into the Employee Assistance Fund last May, but that money — and any previous surplus — is now gone.
He said the money should have been deposited in the fall, but wasn't.
"Our collective agreement clearly states that deposits will be made in September of each year."
We have offered to replenish the fund to support our students.- Carleton University statement
Petite met with Carleton officials Thursday to discuss how benefits could be reinstated.
"They have offered [an additional] deposit of $170,000 into the Employment Assistance Fund, but they have made this deposit contingent on the adjustment of available benefits," he said.
"They think that the way to sustain access to benefits is decreasing the percentage available to each member ... eliminating certain benefits ... and not increasing the amount available. We see it differently. We would like to maintain and increase access to benefits and increase the deposits made into the Employment Assistance Fund."
In a statement issued Saturday, Carleton officials said the only condition attached to the latest deposit was the union's willingness to "review the benefit plan with the university to avoid a potential similar situation in the future."
"We have offered to replenish the fund to support our students," the statement said.
"We are waiting for CUPE to acknowledge that we have already met our obligations and expect to bargain this at the table."