The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, February 22, 2003

USEC Strikers’ benefit concerns multiply

By Joe Walker

USEC Inc. has told striking union workers their company-sponsored health insurance will expire March 1, but they may opt for a federal plan costing tenfold what they pay now.

The firm sent letters Thursday to about 630 members of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International that USEC will not pay for medical and dental insurance beyond February. Starting March 1, the workers may opt for coverage through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, better known as COBRA, the letters said.

COBRA typically allows people who no longer work for a company to continue employer-provided insurance if they pay the full premium themselves. Union workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant now pay 10 percent of medical-dental insurance premiums — about $137 a month for a family — and USEC pays the rest.

Switching to COBRA would mean paying about $1,380 a month for a family, $959 for two people and $501 for one. Once notified by Cobraserve, the plan administrator for USEC, workers will have 60 days to choose whether to continue with COBRA coverage, the letter said.

The development is the latest blow to the families of union workers who have been on strike since Feb. 4 over issues including the soaring cost of health care. PACE President Leon Owens said the average union worker is losing about $3,500 a month in wages.

"In the face of adversity, people always rally around each other," he said. "That's what we will continue to do."

Union members have applied for state unemployment benefits, but Owens said they will not qualify unless PACE wins an unfair labor practices case alleging the company withheld benefits information and did not bargain in good faith. Although Owens was hoping for a quick ruling, it "could take weeks" to gather evidence and decide the case, said Joe Artiles, a National Labor Relations Board official in Nashville, Tenn.

The health insurance letters went out a day after union and management negotiators met unsuccessfully for two hours with a federal mediator. Among other things, striking workers oppose USEC’s refusal to expand their fixed pension by roughly $250 a month. They say a flat pension and soaring health-care costs would financially devastate them if they became sick from prior workplace exposure to radiation and chemicals.

Before the mediation session ended, the company hinted at trying to help expand a program to compensate sick current and former plant workers, USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said.

Owens said Friday that he was pleased at the gesture, but it now seems hollow because of the health insurance issue. He said some workers are suffering from diseases not on the workers' compensation list and are faced with huge premium increases to continue coverage.

"We're very concerned that this (letter) is contrary to the spirit of cooperation that Mrs. Stuckle just announced a couple of days ago," Owens said. "We feel that if they are that concerned about the health and welfare of employees, they will accept payment for March to continue our group insurance."

He said he advised union members to mail their share of company-plan costs to USEC for coverage in March. That cost typically is deducted from their paychecks.

The sick-worker program and health insurance premiums "are two completely, totally separate kinds of issues," Stuckle said Friday, adding that it would cost USEC $600,000 to $700,000 to keep paying group health insurance in March. "It would be a very unwise business decision for the company to spend $700,000 to pay people to not work."

Four days before striking, the union overwhelmingly rejected USEC's five-year contract offer, which would have increased employees’ share of health insurance premiums from 10 percent to 12 percent this year and to 19 percent by 2007. Also, USEC would not agree to a union demand to increase the average pension by roughly $250 a month.

Union workers complained that USEC senior managers were not part of contract talks. To stress that point, about 100 PACE members will picket company headquarters in Bethesda, Md., for about four hours starting at 7:30 a.m. CST Monday. Organizer Bill Hawkins said the "informational" picketing will not interfere with building access.

Owens said he would go on the trip if he and other union officials could meet with USEC President William "Nick" Timbers and Executive Vice President Dennis Spurgeon. Stuckle said Friday that both executives would be away Monday on business trips scheduled long before the strike started.

The union group will leave Paducah in two buses about 8 a.m. Sunday from the Kmart parking lot on Lone Oak Road. Hawkins said the group will arrive in Manassas, Va., about 9 that night and leave for Bethesda the next morning. After picketing and touring parts of nearby Washington, D.C., union members will spend Monday night in Manassas and return home Tuesday.

Hawkins said the union is paying for the buses and lodging, and strikers are paying for meals.