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Decatur teaching assistants to suspend strike; no contract reached

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Members of the Chicago Teacher's Union and the Decatur Federation of Teaching Assistants strike outside of the Keil Administration building on Tuesday. 

DECATUR — Teaching assistants are set to return to Decatur classrooms Friday after three days of striking, though a contract agreement has not yet been reached with Decatur Public Schools. 

In a statement, the Decatur Federation of Teaching Assistants said it would suspend the strike "so that Decatur students can get the education they deserve." But the union also said that the school board had "alerted the union that their health insurance will be canceled."

“It’s fitting that on Halloween, they pull this trick,” union President Paula Busboom said. “They’re trying to hit us where it hurts and take away exactly what we’re fighting to keep. Instead, they should be setting up a meeting with us through our mediator so we can settle this the right way and get back to our students with a settled contract.”

Chief Operational Officer Todd Covault said the district sent out COBRA notices, which are triggered under federal law as soon as an employee separates from the district. Covault said the notice specifies that the teaching assistants can continue their health insurance for 18 months but will have to pay for the costs in full and that the district would no longer cover their portion.

School board member Regan Lewis made a similar announcement on Monday before the strike began. She said: "For those who do not come to work tomorrow or for those who show up and are sent home due to programs that are suspended, your pay and your district-provided health insurance cease. Under federal law those who are not working have a reduction of work hours which triggers a COBRA notification. Employees who walk off of the job will have the option to (use) COBRA (for) their health insurance benefits and pay 100% of the health insurance benefits."

Health insurance costs have been a major sticking point in the negotiations, which began in April and have included several sessions with a federal mediator. 

The school district released the following statement: "District #61 received notification that members of the Decatur Federation of Teaching Assistants will return to work on Friday, November 1, 2019. All DPS programs that had been suspended will resume normal operations and schedules on Friday, November 1."

More than 500 special education and prekindergarten students have been kept out of class during the strike that began Tuesday.

Busboom said the striking teaching assistants appreciated the support they had been given by students, parents, teachers and the community. However, she said, the school board is "operating without a conscience and needs to reassess its priorities."

"I’d call them childish, but that’s an insult to children," Busboom said. "They’ve escalated their tactics to the point that they are playing with people’s lives. It’s unfair and wrong.

"Our members work to provide quality education assistance to our students. We simply want to negotiate a fair and reasonable contract that allows us to meet our own basic needs. We stand ready to bargain.”

The union represents 275 hearing interpreters, licensed practical nurses, hearing-vision technicians and teaching assistants who have been working without a contract since the academic year started in August.

The teaching assistants say the district's health insurance proposal is too expensive for them, particularly those with family coverage. District leaders have said they're offering reasonable benefits, including the option of a high-deductible plan with lower monthly premiums. They accused union leadership of failing to communicate details to members. 

Teachers currently pay $900 annually for single employee coverage and $3,300 for family coverage. The money is paid over 18 pay periods, or the nine months of the year that teaching assistants work.

Under the district's proposal, their current level of coverage would be known as the "gold" plan. The union says the cost increases for monthly premiums with this plan are too high. Costs in the contract's final year, 2023, would range from $1,471.56 for a single employee to $8,159.28 for family coverage. The district also would offer plans for an employee and spouse or employee and children that would fall between $5,500 and $5,700 annually. 

The district is also offering a newly created high-deductible "silver" plan. Under this plan, the district would cover all of a single employee's monthly premiums and 85% of the premium for the other categories of coverage. 

A single employee would have a $2,100 deductible under the silver plan during 2019 and it could be increased in future years, officials said. The deductible for a single employee under the gold plan is $750 and will increase to $1,000 in 2021. 

Jon Nadler, field service director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, has said the high-deductible plan was "not feasible" for union members. Speaking on behalf of DFTA, he said the district would need to lower the rate of increase to monthly premiums under the gold plan in order to end the strike. 

Because teaching assistants pay for their full year of coverage over the nine months they are working, union members with family coverage would have to pay $906 monthly under the district's plan, he said. Currently, they make nine monthly payments of $366. 

This story will be updated. 

Contact Analisa Trofimuk at (217) 421-7985. Follow her on Twitter: @AnalisaTro

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