Supermarket retirees hit as health premiums rise

January 21, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

Charles Cockrill retired in 1984 after 30 years with the A&P supermarket chain, believing his future secure with a pension and free medical benefits under a joint union-employer benefits plan.

But two years later, he was required to pay $12 a month toward his health insurance, and the rates kept soaring.

This month, he and some 4,000 other Baltimore-Washington supermarket retirees learned that they must pay $171.95 a month, more than doubling last year's $80 rate.

"I thought 30 years-and-out was a great deal," said the former Baltimore meat cutter.

"Now it's looking like a bad choice between a pension and health insurance."

At age 55, he has 10 more years before he can qualify for federal Medicare coverage, so he is dependent on the union-employer plan for health coverage.

But nearly 1,000 other plan participants dropped out of the plan this month rather than pay the higher contributions, said Thomas Russow, president of Local 27, United Food and Commercial Workers union.

"I sure hope they're covered by Medicare and not going without any insurance," he added.

"This is a real crisis for people."

Soaring medical costs and increased use of the plan's benefits by retirees, along with a $3 million deficit last year that was covered by the three participating food chains -- Giant, Safeway and Super Fresh (formerly A&P) -- resulted in the hefty increase in retiree premiums.

The UFCW and the chains jointly administer the plan, which also covers about 26,000 active food store workers. Employers guarantee health benefits to active employees, but they only guarantee to contribute a specified monthly sum for each retiree's coverage.

Retirees must make up any fund deficit in higher contributions the next year, under the union-supermarket contracts first negotiated in the Baltimore and Washington areas in 1983.

Last week, UFCW retirees wearing black armbands picketed employer offices to demand relief from the rate increases.

Union officials accused the supermarkets of "callousness" toward the complaints of retirees and proposed that plan reserves be used to reduce the retiree rates. They rejected company proposals to cut retiree benefits instead.

The supermarkets responded that they had paid the $3 million in reserves last year and would not assume additional costs of the retiree health program unless reductions were made in their other labor contract costs.

"They [unions] want the employers to alter the arrangement only in one direction, only to pick up the additional liability without [cost] adjustments elsewhere," said Harry W. Burton, legal counsel to the three food chains on the health plan.

"It's not going to be settled by confrontation, only if everybody works together," he added.

Both sides agree that the retiree contribution increases are specified in the negotiated labor contracts that expire in 1992. Employers will pay $162.23 a month this year for each retiree.

While the UFCW negotiated with employers the labor contracts that govern the health plans, the union retirees could not vote on those contracts.

Only active employees can ratify the contracts.

"We need some compassion, some helping hand from the employers to soften the blow," Mr. Russow pleaded.

When the union was asked by hard-pressed employers for economic concessions in the early 1980s, he continued, "we found their plea was fair and we helped them out."

Mr. Burton said the food chains were open to discussing alternatives. He noted that employer trustees of the plan agreed a year ago to postpone an estimated $17 a month in retiree premium increases, responding to the union's request. Those postponed costs have added to the impact of 1991 premium increases, he pointed out.

Under the supermarket chain contracts, employees can retire after 30 years of service with full medical benefits.

That produced a growing number of retirees like Mr. Cockrill who are too young for Medicare coverage that would pick up the major portion of health care expenses.

Nationwide, retiree health costs appear to be increasing at a faster rate than that of the active work force.

Some of the factors involved are lower retirement ages and longer life spans, cost-shifting by federal Medicare to private plans, and an increasingly higher utilization of benefits by retirees.

With escalating health costs taking more money from employer and employee alike, retirees are faced with the prospect of contributing more to maintain their insurance.

"Until the early 1980s, many employers provided their retirees with health insurance coverage without much attention to costs. They presumed they could end the benefit at any time," observed Dallas Salisbury, president of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a non-profit research organization in Washington.

But court decisions and changes in bankruptcy law have challenged those practices, he said. Private employer liabilities for retiree health insurance obligations today could exceed $250 billion, the institute estimates.

Meanwhile,the UFCW locals in Washington and Baltimore say they will bargain hard next year for a cap on the amount of money that their retirees must pay to the health benefits plan.

"This is a definite strike issue in the next contract negotiations," Mr. Russow warned.

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