Health Care

June 14, 2014

Fresno Co. supervisors may offer insurance to sick workers on leave

Fresno County employees who lost their county-sponsored health insurance plan when they went on extended leave could get a reprieve.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider a proposal to allow employees who suffer a catastrophic illness or injury to stay on the county's plan for six more months.

The latest proposal surfaced after the supervisors put limits on donated leave and then heard from employees with serious illnesses or injuries who were forced to pay higher insurance rates when their leave time expired.

The county previously had let employees stay on leave as long as they were ill and got donations from fellow workers, with no limitation. Those employees retained their county salaries, stayed on county insurance and continued collecting money toward their retirement.

Under the leave policy that supervisors amended on April 29, employees on extended sick leave could not remain on the county health plan once they ran out of donated leave.

Supervisors voted 4-1 for a new policy limiting leave time to 80 or 120 hours, depending on the bargaining unit, and establishing a 40-hour limit that each employee could donate. It affected dozens of employees on leave, some of whom had hundreds of hours donated to assist them.

Supervisors supported the revision after learning about one worker who was on leave for three years, earning a salary and getting county insurance and retirement benefits.

Many other county employees have been on sick leave for a year or less, and 400 -- between 5% and 6% -- use donated leave in a given year, said Beth Bandy, director of personnel services.

When employees' sick leave expires, their income comes from state disability insurance, which pays two-thirds of normal salary. The reduction in income hits employees at the same time they face higher insurance premiums -- 3 1/2 times more than their regular premium, which in some cases means a jump from $300 monthly to more than $1,000.

The proposal that the board will review Tuesday does not change leave time rules established in April but allows employees on extended sick leave to stay on county insurance until Dec. 7.

The board didn't want employees to fall through the cracks created by the change in the leave policy, Board Chairman Andreas Borgeas said. Allowing them to stay on the county health plan is "the right thing to do," he said.

Supervisor Phil Larson agreed, adding that "something has to be done on catastrophic illness."

Supervisor Henry R. Perea said the change is an important step that he will support. He cast the lone dissenting vote against limiting leave donations in April.

"It protects the health of employees and their families during a time of catastrophic illness, which should always be a priority for us as an employer," Perea said.

After the board agreed to set limits on donated leave, employees suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses told supervisors the new rules were going to cause them serious financial hardships as they deal with life-threatening illnesses.

Other supervisors "pretty much got the message that we put ourselves in a mess," Perea said.

He said county staff is going to examine policies from other counties and may consider later this year a "more reasonable policy than what we are doing."

A Service Employees International Union official said the county's willingness to consider paying the premiums for workers with major illness is a starting point.

"The county has committed to work with us in the future," said Tom Abshere, regional director for Local 521, which represents more than 4,500 county workers. "We want to talk about this until we really have a policy that helps people with catastrophic illness."

If you go

What: Fresno County Board of Supervisors meeting

When: 9 a.m. Tuesday

Where: Hall of Records, 2281 Tulare St.

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