Faculty at the New School Denounce “Skyrocketing Healthcare Costs” Amid Pandemic

More than 600 part-time faculty at the New School in New York City have signed a petition denouncing “skyrocketing healthcare costs” prompted by a change in its insurance policy this year. The shift is the latest blow to part-time staff at the school amid cost-cutting measures related to the COVID-19 crisis. While their salaries and retirement contributions have been frozen since last spring, the new transition from United Healthcare to an Aetna plan includes an increased premium and a 10% co-insurance on multiple services.

The overwhelming majority of the petition’s signatories work at the Parsons School of Design, the largest of the New School’s five divisions, where part-time faculty make up at least 85% of the teaching staff. Many among them are also working artists and designers who have lost other supplementary income during a pandemic that has ravaged the cultural sector.

Part-time staff are paid on a per-class basis and have been doubly impacted by course cuts in the last year, says Alex Robbins, a fashion instructor at Parsons and member of ACT-UAW 7902, the New School’s part-time faculty union.

“Part-time faculty got squeezed from both sides,” Robbins told Hyperallergic. “It’s regrettable that the university made such a massive and negative change to its worker’s health insurance in the middle of the pandemic.”

The new Aetna health insurance plan was announced in the fall of 2020 and went into effect on January 1, 2021. It was billed by the university as comparable to previous coverage, but workers told Hyperallergic that they are scrambling to adapt to the policy, which for some leaves their prescriptions and medical services uncovered and their longtime trusted physicians out-of-network.

Tamar Samir, a part-time professor in Parsons since 2001 and union representative, teaches three first-year undergraduate courses and earns $6,133 per course before taxes. Healthcare expenses are disproportionately eating into her salary, she says: not only did her monthly premium increase by $75 with the new plan, but certain services have become prohibitively expensive, like a $500 dental MRI for her wife Nora, who has been on unemployment since March and is a dependent on Samir’s policy.

“The recent unilateral change in insurance has affected us — causing uncertainty, confusion, anxiety, and high costs,” Samir told Hyperallergic. “We care deeply for our students, for their well-being and success. Faculty’s well-being and health is important and should be valued and well-supported, since we deliver the learning experience. We are the face of the New School.”

Undergraduate students at Parsons pay $1,700 per credit, Samir notes; for the 3-credit course Samir currently teaches, with 18 students enrolled, the university rakes in $91,000.

Another part-time faculty member at Parsons, who asked to remain anonymous, shared a similar story. “For a family plan we pay around $800 a month,” she said. “A medication I have to take that used to be free is now $125. I am recovering from an injury, which requires scans, so I just had to pay $500. When you add all that up, it’s like half my income for the month.”

The new 10% co-insurance means that some services previously covered at 100%, like MRIs, are now only covered at 90%, explains Annie Larson, a part-time faculty member in the School of Fashion at Parsons since 2016.

“We are still learning the full impact of the co-insurance as members start to receive their first bills under the new plan, but we know that it’s being applied to services from X-Rays and diagnostic testing to higher cost items like certain types of ambulance rides, infertility treatments, and hospice care,” she said.

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, a New School representative said part-time faculty is “a vital part of the university community.” The school prides itself on being “one of the few institutions that provides access to comprehensive health insurance for part-time instructors,” and says it has always been committed to working with the unions representing a total of nine groups of employees on its campus.

“The New School historically has made changes to its health insurance plan design year over year in an effort to continue providing affordable and comprehensive health care choices for our community,” the spokesperson said. “Following extensive research on which plans would best fit the needs of our community — including benchmarking our plan against those offered by other universities and non-profit organizations in New York City and elsewhere — we made a carefully considered decision to switch to Aetna.”

The burden of the switch, however, is felt deeply by faculty members afflicted with chronic medical conditions. One part-time professor who has taught at Parsons for over a decade is suffering from “long COVID,” a catchall term for lingering and debilitating symptoms of coronavirus illness months after the virus is no longer detected in the body.

“I worry about long-term care for my last bout of COVID,” she told Hyperallergic, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We don’t yet know how long this lasts. What we do know is that if you’re lucky enough to get into a COVID clinic, there’s extensive testing. It’s not just a respiratory disease, it’s a vascular, neurological, and inflammatory disease.”

“The school has suggested that we return to in-person teaching in the fall,” she added. “I don’t know whether all the testing that I had covered prior to January on our old insurance will be covered with the new insurance.”

A different part-time worker said her husband’s insulin, previously free on the United Healthcare plan, now costs $250 every three months. One of her own medications for multiple health conditions, including a stroke, is also no longer covered.

The New School, like many academic institutions nationwide, has suffered extraordinary losses in the last 12 months. Facing a $130 million budget shortfall for the 2020–2021 academic year, the school drew down its endowment by an unprecedented $80 million — a quarter of total funds. It could have raised tuition, the school said, but doing so would have compromised its larger goals of wider access to education.

It also fired 122 primarily low-level employees, according to a report by Jacobin magazine that plumbs the tension between the university’s legacy as a radically progressive institution, cultivating thinkers the likes of Hannah Arendt, and the reality of its current administration. In a letter to leadership, students in the economics department estimated that the president’s $15 million townhouse, owned by the school, would cover the salary of a recently terminated assistant for 340 years, the New York Times reported.

University workers elsewhere are calling for improved protections and benefits, particularly non-tenured, adjunct, and graduate instructors whose roles are especially vulnerable. Last week, thousands of graduate student workers at Columbia University went on strike for union recognition and a fair contract; among their demands, echoed by graduate unions across the country, are “healthcare improvements that create a sustainable work environment for all.”

“I understand it’s a difficult time financially, but when it comes to the well-being of a community, taking money away from healthcare may seem penny-wise but it is pound-foolish,” said a New School part-time staffer, who also asked for anonymity. “Because it really affects people’s mental and financial health.

Larson, who chairs the part-time faculty union’s bargaining unit, says the New School “has not offered real justification” for the change in health insurance plans. Instead, the university claims that it is their contractual right to introduce a new plan design, she says, a point of contention between the union and the school at the core of a grievance filed by the union in the fall.

Larson says she hopes the school will recognize “the very real struggle of part-time faculty.”

“The issue of healthcare is exacerbated by other issues affecting our members, like having courses canceled which means faculty earn less in wages and having pay increases and pension contributions frozen.”

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