Teachers at BHS grapple with rising healthcare costs


Healthcare insurance costs increase yearly, and are expected to rise by 3.5 percent for Berkeley Unified School District teachers next year, according to Mollie Blustein, a teacher at Cragmont Elementary School and Berkeley High School graduate, who spoke at a recent school board meeting. However, they already consume a significant share of teachers’ salaries. Brought up at the September 21 school board meeting, this affects teachers using healthcare provided by BUSD.

California provides private health insurance, meaning each district supplies a list of private providers that teachers choose from. Teachers then pay a monthly fee for that provider. These prices differ depending on if it’s a single or family plan, increasing substantially for the latter, according to Lewis Smith, a World History, and AP Economics teacher. Districts across California have approached these high costs differently. In Berkeley, BUSD pays a certain amount per employee. Every two years, these amounts change when the union and district negotiate a new contract in response to the ever-increasing costs. The latest agreement increased district contributions to healthcare costs, teacher salaries, and supportive structures for teachers, Smith said. 

Alex Day, a U9 Ethnic Studies teacher and union representative, was one of the teachers to raise this issue at the last school board meeting. Day, along with a small group of BHS teachers, has begun to work with the California Nurses Association over the previous two years to push the Single-payer healthcare bill in California. According to Day, the single-payer bill would replace private insurance, under which the price of healthcare would drop considerably. Until then, BUSD supplies the primary financial support for teachers.

“To be fair, (the district is) contributing more than us,” Day said. “So for every employee, an employer is also making contributions. The employee contributions come from their paycheck. Employer contributions come from the district budget.” Despite the district’s contributions to health care costs, Day described how teachers still experience the heavy financial burden. 

“I worked a second job, until May 2021, in a grocery store all through the pandemic to make ends meet partly because of the healthcare costs,” Day said. “I’m not the only one who had to work a second job … We pay so much and then can’t get much care, especially for mental health. The sleep deprivation I have to go through to do this job, the emotional stress of being present for 120 or 150 students every day, is a lot … and then (I’m) not getting effective care.” 

Day continued: “When I was in grad school, they told us, this was (in) 2015, 50 percent of people who enter teaching burn out before they get through five years,” he said. “And that was in 2015, so it’s only gone up since then.”

Day added that despite the high costs, effective and available care for teachers is not always available. Sharing similar frustrations, Yearbook and World Mythology teacher Genevieve Mage explains her ineffective experience with the mental health care systems provided. 

“The biggest thing that I probably would need healthcare-wise to work in the system that we are in…(is) mental healthcare,” Mage said. “I can’t speak to all of the different kinds of plans that you can get through our insurance, but Kaiser, in particular, getting any useful therapist at all was so difficult. And then when you get a therapist, and them not working out or not being useful was incredibly difficult and demoralizing to the point where I know teachers that just gave up trying to get therapy and get mental health support,” she said. 

Paying large portions of money and lacking effective mental healthcare has led to teachers burning out or going part-time, Mage said. 

“You feel worthless, right you feel like (the district) wants me for my labor, but you don’t want me as a human being like, I am a commodity or a tool but I’m not a real human being,” she said. 

Smith also described the outcomes of high living and healthcare costs on teachers. 

“I’ve known teachers last year who left because the pay is not good enough. And if you tack on housing on top of the healthcare costs it’s a lot,” Smith said. “It’s a lot for a lot of teachers and many have left to go to higher paying jobs elsewhere in the Bay.”

While BUSD and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers will continue to rehash agreements surrounding healthcare costs, Day sees the single-payer bill to be the most effective solution.

“In this particular issue, I don’t see there being much more the district can do,” Day said. “And despite their generosity, even that is not fully enough. So then therefore, it seems like a statewide solution is the only way to go,” he said.