By Mark Scheer
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — A local labor leader says a change in health insurance plans being offered by a well-known tire manufacturer will have a “drastic” impact on the finances of dozens of retirees from the company’s Niagara Falls plant.
Jim Briggs, staff representative for United Steelworkers District 4, said Goodyear has informed retirees from the company’s plant on 56th Street that they will soon be losing the group plan coverage they enjoyed for years as part of a companywide move.
While a company spokesperson says the proposal could ultimately save money for salaried Medicare-eligible retirees over 65, Briggs maintains that it amounts to a “slap in the face” for between 60 and 70 workers who retired from the Falls plant believing they had a deal on health insurance plans and premiums.
Briggs said retirees were informed earlier this month that they had until this past Wednesday to enroll in a Medicare supplement plan now that the firm has chosen to discontinue the group plan it offered to Medicare-eligible retirees. Briggs said the change could cost retirees represented by the Steelworkers union anywhere from $200 to $1,000 extra per month, an amount he maintains many of them simply can’t afford.
“Either way, for people on fixed incomes, it’s going to be a blow,” Briggs said. “It’s a drastic change.”
Keith Price, a spokesperson for Goodyear, confirmed that the company is discontinuing the group health plan it offered to Medicare-eligible, salaried retirees at the end of the year, noting that it has contract with Extend Health to work with each retiree to help them “compare, select and enroll” in a Medicare supplement plan that “best fits their individual health and budget needs.” Price said some retirees have already purchased Medicare supplement health plans in the individual market and found them less expensive than premiums paid for the current group plan offered by Goodyear. Price noted that several other major employers, including General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, Caterpillar, Whirlpool, Cooper Tires, FedEx and United Parcel Service, have already made similar changes in recent years.
“Goodyear is constantly reviewing the coverage and costs of the benefit options we offer to our associates and retirees,” Price said in a statement issued in response to questions from the Niagara Gazette. “Our review of health care options for our salaried Medicare-eligible retirees (age 65+) showed that the vast majority of them could save money by enrolling in an individual Medicare supplement plan that would best fit their individual needs.”
Briggs said retirees from the Falls plant not only need their health insurance, but need it at rates they can afford. He challenged the notion that the new offer would save retirees money, adding that as far as they are concerned the company agreed under various labor deals dating back to the 1970s to cover health insurance costs for its workers once they retired. Briggs said he believes Goodyear’s management is now going back on its word.
Briggs said many of the retirees in question are on fixed incomes and their pensions will be greatly diminished by the health insurance costs being passed along to them under Goodyear’s latest proposal. As a result, he said, many of them will be forced to seek public support in the form of food stamps and other assistance programs.
“I don’t think a good corporate citizen should do things like this,” Briggs said. “This is going to push people to need social assistance. It’s going to be more of a social burden on the community.”
Briggs said the Steelworkers union remains open to discussing options with Goodyear executives, but said it cannot accept the deal that is being offered to retirees. He said the union plans to meet with impacted retirees after Thanksgiving and he did not rule out the possibility of legal action if necessary.
“This is just fundamentally wrong for a company to do this,” Briggs said. “We’re going to do everything we can possible to assist these people to maintain a quality of life and not have to turn to public assistance in their community. We’re going to do whatever we can to prevent it.”