Unspoken benefits revealed

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 24, 2007

AHOSKIE – September of 2007 will not be remembered as a good month for seven Roanoke-Chowan Community College (RCCC) employees.

Due to financial exigency declared at the college, seven RCCC staff members lost not only their livelihood, but life-sustaining benefits as well, including their health insurance.

Or did they?

According to North Carolina General Statute 135-40 and its subsequent sub, all falling under the heading of the

North Carolina Teachers’ and State Employees’ Comprehensive Major Medical Plan, state employees whose jobs are terminated due to a reduction in force qualify for 12 months of medical insurance paid by the state.

Until they did a little investigating on their own, no one knew this General Statute existed.

Instead, the “RCCC 7” were faced with expensive COBRA payments to keep their medical insurance or take a gamble on their health and drop coverage all together.

COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act passed by Congress in 1986, provides continuation of group health coverage that otherwise might be terminated. Under COBRA, if a person voluntarily resigns from a job or is terminated for any reason other than &uot;gross misconduct,&uot; they are guaranteed the right to continue their former employer’s group plan for individual or family health insurance for up to 18 months at their own expense.

The key phrase is “at their own expense.”

Meeting with the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald last week, the “RCCC 7” said they received a handout from the RCCC Human Resources Office which offered details of their termination. One of the items listed in a Sept. 18 e-mail from the HR Office was information regarding their rights to continue group medical coverage through COBRA.

That prompted Jodi Aerts, the college’s former Director of Admissions and an 18-year RCCC employee before she was terminated on Sept. 13, to check the state’s General Statutes for clarification. What she found wasn’t what she and her fellow fired workers were told by RCCC officials.

“I found it kind of odd that they (Human Resources) were not aware of this state statute,” Aerts said. “If I was able to find it…..well I guess anyone could have found it if they had only took the time to look.”

That General Statute (135-40.2, Section A, Item 6) reads as follows:

“Notwithstanding the provisions of G.S. 135?40.11, employees formerly covered by the provisions of this section, other than retired employees, who have been employed for 12 or more months by an employing unit and whose jobs are eliminated because of a reduction, in total or in part, in the funds used to support the job or its responsibilities, provided the employees were covered by the Plan at the time of separation from service resulting from a job elimination. Employees covered by this subsection shall be covered for a period of up to 12 months following a separation from service because of a job elimination.”

Upon bringing this information to the attention of RCCC Human Resources Director Amy Wiggins, Aerts and the other six terminated employees soon thereafter heard some good news….their individual medical insurance coverage under the state’s plan will continue as is through Oct. 31, 2008.

However, those terminated due to reduction in force will see a severe impact on their state retirement. Only three of the seven – Aerts, former Curriculum Specialist Evelyn Vinson (27 years) and former Financial Aid Officer Ethelene Custis (10 years) – were vested in the state retirement plan. Each had worked a minimum of five years to become vested, but because they are not making monthly contributions to the retirement plan, that trio will experience a reduced value in their state retirement once reaching retirement age.

The other four will receive no state retirement benefits.

Upon being contacted by the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald for comment, Wiggins said she had been informed that any questions regarding reduction in force should be forwarded to John Leidy, who serves as legal counsel for RCCC. The News-Herald will follow that advice and contact Leidy for comment, which will be published, if he so chooses to make comment, in an upcoming article.

“Financial Exigency Reduction in Force” was put into place by the RCCC Board of Trustees at a special called meeting on Sept. 6. At that time, the board agreed to allow RCCC President Dr. Ralph Soney to proceed with “cause to be established rules and procedures governing review, reassignment or reduction in force of college personnel due to financial exigency.”

This measure came on the heels of a regularly scheduled Aug. 28 meeting of the trustees where Dr. Soney informed the board of approximately $700,000 in state revenue shortfalls due to declining student enrollment.

The “RCCC 7” claim Dr. Soney did not follow Administrative Procedure 03-0902 when terminating their positions. Originally, two of the employees said they were seeking legal advice in regards to their claims of wrongful termination. As of today, four of the seven have contacted an attorney and one other said they are considering doing the same.

Additionally, six of the “RCCC 7” are females over the age of 40. Each said they have or will file a complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Any individual who believes that his or her employment rights have been violated based on age, sex or religious beliefs may file a charge of discrimination.

NEXT: Reduction in Force n True or False