Plums For Some, But Coal For Others


January 03, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

Health insurance is a major issue for all Americans. With costs rising three times the overall rate of inflation, as use of expensive new medical technologies and medicines increases, as employees are forced to pay much higher contributions toward what was once a "fringe benefit" of employment - it is a subject that will receive renewed attention in Congress under the new administration.

For most people, health insurance is tied to their employment (or to government Medicare or Medicaid programs). When the employer or the government decides that these people should pay more for their coverage - an unceasing trend - they pay it or lose it. They have virtually no choice.

So when an employer decides to pick up more of the cost of health insurance, it's big news, the equivalent of the rare "man bites dog" story. It should be recognized as an unusual contribution to employees' welfare.

That's the type of praise you might expect for the Havre de Grace city fathers, who picked up their employee health insurance contributions for three pay periods in lieu of the annual year-end (commonly known as Christmas, if we may dare to defy the ban on mixing church and state) bonus.

On the contrary, the mayor and city council majority played the Grinch instead of Santa Claus, by filling some employee stockings with half-eaten sugar plums and leaving nothing for others.

In a further display of munificence, The guardians of the municipal treasury intimated that their deep compassion for city workers (and those guardians' extraordinary money management skills) allowed the city to avoid any layoffs.

The so-called $100 bonus has become an expected part of city workers' annual pay. It's supposed to be factored into the budget that is approved by the mayor and council each July.

When the budget ran a little short this year, the city solons decided not to pay the bonus, which would cost Havre de Grace about $9,000. Instead, they announced last month that they would pay three installments of employee contributions to the municipal health insurance plans.

That gesture saved the city about $6,000, by Mayor Gunther Hirsch's reckoning. The maximum "bonus" contribution was about $86; those with less than full-family coverage (such as single individuals) got a much lower bonus.

At least a half-dozen employees got nothing at all, because they did not carry their health insurance with the city plan. After all, the letter from city fathers suggested, they were lucky even to have a job.

The entire affair was badly handled, if the administration had any intention of retaining the good will of its employees.

The bonus could have been omitted entirely (it is kept as a bonus to avoid permanent payroll commitment) and city employees could have at least felt they were being treated equitably, if shabbily. The bonus could have been smaller but equal for all.

But to discriminate between those who use the city's health insurance plan and those who do not, between those with families and those without, was unfair and contrary to the tradition of the bonus payment.

You might expect that those who got the maximum contribution would be grateful for their relative good fortune. But many of them resent the capricious, discriminatory and embarrassing action against their fellow workers.

"I would rather the city give nothing at all than to give some people a pat on the back while degrading others," said Larry E. Walter, whose family plan contribution was paid by the city.

The city's letter, adds water plant employce Robert J. Skinner, was further aimed at "instilling fear that brings control" by hinting at possible future layoffs.

"We have to stop playing Santa Claus," Mayor Hirsch smugly commented at the last city council meeting, arguing against a motion to restore the bonus for all. Wearing a Santa cap and sweat shirt, he and his it's-only-good-business statements were more evocative of Marley & Scrooge than of St. Nicholas.

Curiously, Joseph Kerchenderfer allowed as how, in his three years on the council, he had not heard of the tradition of the year-end bonus, despite the fact that the bonuses distributed last year.

Credit should be given to John Correri and James Vancherie for trying to get a bonus for all Havre de Grace employees. They were clearly outvoted by a council majority that seems more intent on moving into the new $1 million City Hall than with municipal staff morale. The token bonus belatedly given the workers without insurance was a hollow gesture.

Meantime, Havre de Grace employees could add the latest cutback to the reduction of their promised cost of living increase last year (1992) and the delay in awarding it. And yes, every city worker's contributions for health insurance also went up.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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