News Story

Teachers Union Insurer Sells Coverage For Some Nonunion Staff, But Not These Two

‘They are making an example out of us’

Two Adams Township School District employees say that the Michigan Education Association denied them health insurance without notice because they had stopped paying dues to the union. One of the employees has a child with Type 1 diabetes.

Valerie Dobson is a paraprofessional and Michele Harma is a secretary for a principal at the school district that has 457 students and is located in Painesdale, about eight miles south of Houghton.

The support staff employees say they received no notice from the teachers union that it would not sell the district coverage for them, which had been extended through a subsidiary called MESSA. They say also that the union had stonewalled them on several inquires made over the summer.

The pair only learned from the district’s superintendent on Aug. 27 that MESSA would not renew their coverage. Coming just before the new school year, this discovery gave them less than a month to find new insurance before their policies expired on Sept. 30.

Dobson, who was an MEA member for seven years, and Harma, who was an MEA member for 18 years, had both stopped paying dues and fees to the union, which under Michigan’s right-to-work law they are not required to pay. Dobson stopped paying the union in November 2017 while Harma had stopped paying in January 2017.

Both employees, however, said they wanted to pay their dues and get caught back up.

“Why wouldn’t you want us back as members?” Dobson asked.

The service employees had belonged to a separate MEA bargaining unit, which, the union eventually told them, had been decertified when its last contract expired on June 30. But the union also did not inform Dobson and Harma about this until after they learned their health coverage was cancelled. Reportedly, the unit had dwindled to just a few members after the district outsourced some non-core services.

Dobson and Harma are bothered by the MEA’s claim their coverage was denied because they were no longer union members, while at the same time it offers coverage to other nonunion members, including principals and administrators.

They said they asked their union representatives four different times why other nonunion employees were offered MESSA insurance, but they never got a response.

“They are making an example out of us,” said Harma, who has a child with Type 1 diabetes.

Eventually, the district did get coverage for the employees from a different insurance provider. Dobson and Harma credited Superintendent Tim Keteri for his help.

The MEA and its bargaining agent for the district, Mike Shoudy, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

The MEA did release a statement to The Daily Mining Gazette.

David Crim, MEA spokesman, said, “MEA membership provides school employees with many advantages, including access to quality health coverage through MESSA. When a group of MEA members decides to stop paying dues and leave MEA, they no longer have access to the benefits of MEA membership, including MESSA coverage.”

“No one would expect a gym to allow people who stop paying their dues to still come to the gym to work out,” Crim said. “It’s simply not fair to the MEA members who pay their dues and keep the organization strong.”

In the past, the MEA has stated that it wanted to still represent public school employees who no longer wanted to be members.

In 2013, Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, questioned MEA spokesman Doug Pratt about “freeloaders,” a term the MEA has called people who leave the union.

“Sometimes I've heard of people who want to leave the union [described] as ‘freeloader,’” Meekhof said in that 2013 committee hearing. “Is there contention by the MEA that you would wish to be relieved of representing those people who want to opt out of the union?”

After a long pause, Pratt answered, “No.”

The MEA has also historically offered MESSA insurance to administrators who are not members of the union.