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ARTICLE

Understanding Your Benefits

An Important Component of Your Compensation Package – and a Critical Bargaining Goal
Derek Hulse

Your collective agreement includes over a dozen pages of technical information about how the provincial benefits plan is funded and managed. For many ETFO members, this is a section in their agreement that is shrouded in mystery – and one they’re likely to skip when reviewing the entitlements in their collective agreement.

But benefits are an important part of the overall compensation package ETFO is negotiating for you during the 2022 round of central bargaining, so it makes sense to be familiar with how benefits and bargaining intersect. It’s time to master the mystery of benefits funding.

A Quick History of ETFO Benefits

Prior 2014, ETFO members received benefits either through their school board or, in a few cases, through their ETFO local. As a result of provincial negotiations between ETFO, school board associations and the government, the responsibility of managing benefits for ETFO members was eventually transferred from individual school boards to the ETFO Employee Life and Health Trust (ETFO-ELHT). Other education sector unions (OSSTF, CUPE, OECTA, AEFO, etc.) also negotiated their own ELHTs in 2014.

What is the ETFO-ELHT?

Essentially, it is the independent entity that oversees benefits and administers the pool of money negotiated by ETFO for the sole purpose of providing eligible members with benefits. The government provides the negotiated amount of money to individual school boards each year. The school boards, in turn, are to contribute that money to the ETFOELHT to fund benefits for eligible members.

There are two separate “plans” in the ETFO-ELHT: one contains benefits funding for eligible ETFO teacher and long-term occasional teacher members, and the other holds the benefits funding for eligible ETFO education worker members.

The ETFO-ELHT is managed by a Board of Trustees that includes representatives from ETFO, the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association and the government. The Board of Trustees is responsible for ensuring the long-term viability of the ETFO-ELHT. Its job is to analyze trends in benefits usage, think ahead and ensure there is adequate funding available for your benefits today, next year or ten years from now. This may sometimes mean that difficult decisions need to be made by the Board of Trustees to maintain the sustained health of the ETFO-ELHT.

The ETFO-ELHT publishes an annual report that provides information on the financial position of the plan. The annual report can be found on the ETFO-ELHT website at etfo-elhtbenefits.ca.

How is the ETFO-ELHT Funded?

When the Federation sits down with the government to talk about benefits, it does not negotiate what type of benefits will be provided – the ETFO-ELHT determines the components of the benefits plan. Instead, the Federation negotiates the funding that will be received by the ETFO-ELHT to provide benefits to eligible members.

The initial amount of money negotiated by ETFO in 2014 provided enough funding for the ETFO-ELHT up to 2019-2020. That negotiated amount included built-in annual inflationary increases. Negotiated funding for benefits was based on:

  • the number of eligible permanent members that were entitled to benefits coverage; and
  • the employment status of those eligible members, i.e., whether they occupied full-time permanent or part-time permanent positions.

Benefits funding for eligible part-time members is pro-rated, which means that the funding the government provides is increased or reduced proportionally based on the full-time equivalent status (FTE) of the member.

Benefits for Part-Time Members

When a member working in a part-time position opts to participate in benefits that are not fully funded by the government, the part-time member pays the pro-rated premiums. For example, a member working in a half-time position would pay 50% of the monthly health and dental benefit premiums, and a member in a 0.8 FTE position would pay 20% of the monthly premiums.

Part-time members may opt out of health and dental benefits, and may opt back in within 31 days of experiencing an FTE change (e.g., increasing from 0.5 FTE to 0.8 FTE, etc.) or a life event (e.g., marriage/ common-law/divorce, birth/adoption, loss of spousal benefits, etc.).

Negotiating Benefits in 2019

During the 2019 round of central bargaining ETFO negotiated several changes, including increased funding, to the structure of the ETFO-ELHT.

Benefit insurers/plans often adopt financial accountability practices in order to maintain the health of a benefit plan. This can include establishing a “claims fluctuation reserve” (CFR). A CFR is a reserve of money that is set aside by an insurer to account for an unexpected increase in claims activity. This could be due to, for example, an unanticipated epidemic that results in increased prescription drug claims or change to what was traditionally covered by OHIP and would now have to be covered by private plans.

Prior to 2019, if the claims fluctuation reserve (CFR) was projected to fall below 8.3% in any three-year period, changes to the plan to protect the CFR had to be implemented immediately. This was a concern because a requirement to make immediate changes to the plan did not take into account future increases to benefits funding that could be achieved during bargaining. During the 2019 round of bargaining, ETFO successfully amended the requirements to recognize that future funding increases had to be taken into account when looking at projected time periods that fell outside of the term of the collective agreement.

Another change dealt with the few school boards that were still providing benefits for retirees. During the 2019 round, ETFO, employer bargaining agencies and the government agreed on a process to transfer retirees into the ETFO-ELHT until they were no longer eligible for benefits based on the rules from the board in which they worked. The retirees are accounted for separately under this arrangement and do not affect the benefits of working members.

The parties also agreed to a process and timeline for all school boards to transfer the surpluses (if any) that existed based on the previous benefits arrangements in school boards. This money has now all been transferred to the ETFO-ELHT to support member benefits.

Currently, the ETFO-ELHT receives

Teachers:

  • $5,736 to pay for benefits for a full-time permanent ETFO teacher member;
  • $2,868 to pay for benefits for a half-time (0.5) permanent ETFO teacher member.

Education Workers*:

  • $5,100 to pay for benefits for a full-time permanent ETFO education worker member;
  • $2,550 to pay for benefits for a halftime (0.5) permanent ETFO education worker member.

*Subject to reduction based on reconciliation.

Financial Pressure on the ETFO-ELHT

When it initially negotiated funding for the ETFO-ELHT during the 2014 round of bargaining, the Federation’s primary objective was to have a standardized benefits plan that would offer sufficient coverage to meet most eligible members’ needs. After that funding was negotiated, decisions were made to expand access to benefits and address existing coverage issues, while maintaining the long-term sustainability of the plan.

Attempting to meet these multiple (and sometimes competing) objectives has put some financial pressures on the ETFOELHT. One of the biggest pressure points is that there are ETFO members who are eligible to receive benefits under the terms of the ETFO-ELHT, but the ETFO-ELHT does not receive funding from the government to cover the cost of their benefits.

Long-Term Occasional Teachers

A long-standing goal for ETFO has been to strive to improve entitlements for occasional teacher members, who represent some of the lowest paid members of the Federation. To move forward on that goal, a decision was made in 2015 to expand benefits eligibility, which meant that more long-term occasional (LTO) teachers are able to access benefits through the ETFO-ELHT.

For example, the ETFO-ELHT provides occasional teachers with LTO assignments greater than 90 days (or shorter in some locals, depending on local collective agreement language) with access to paid benefits. This is the case even though the terms negotiated during the 2014 round of bargaining don’t require benefits for LTO assignments.

This scenario has contributed to some financial pressure on the Teacher/Occasional Teacher benefits plan that was not envisioned when the plan was initially negotiated.

The funding plan developed for ETFO Education Workers’ benefits does not include expanded funding for LTO Education Workers. Consequently, the benefit plan for ETFO Education Workers was in a stronger financial position. However, the funding reconciliation will have a major impact on the financial position of the Education Worker plan if it is applied.

Pregnancy/Parental Leaves

Additional funding pressures on the ETFOELHT occur when a permanent member takes a pregnancy/parental leave.

Members on a pregnancy/parental leave are entitled to continue to receive full benefits during their statutory leave. When a member on pregnancy/parental leave is replaced by an LTO member, that LTO member is also entitled to receive benefits under the terms of the ETFO-ELHT. In some cases, the LTO member may also take a pregnancy/parental leave and would be replaced by another LTO member. That means two members – and sometimes three members – are eligible to receive benefits, but the ETFO-ELHT only receives funding to provide benefits for one member. Given the size of our membership and the number of statutory leaves that occur, this can create a significant strain on the ETFO-ELHT.

In addition, inflation, increasing drug costs, the introduction of new drugs and technologies, etc., also contribute additional financial pressure on the ETFO-ELHT.

Negotiating Fair Funding for Benefits Rests on Member Solidarity

During the 2022 round of central bargaining, the rising costs of benefits and the longterm sustainability of the ETFO-ELHT will need to be addressed for the teacher/occasional teacher plan and the education worker plan. This will require ETFO to negotiate an increase in per member benefits funding that will sustain the plan for the term of the new collective agreement.

Insured benefits are a critical component to your overall compensation package. Negotiating anything less than sustainable benefits funding in the next collective agreement would be a major concession with a significant financial impact on you and your colleagues.

During the goal-setting process for the 2022 round of bargaining, ETFO members told their Federation very clearly that maintaining the current level of insured benefits is important to them, and that benefits are worth fighting for. In this round of central bargaining, member solidarity and strength will be key to ensuring that the benefits you and your family rely on are appropriately funded, now and in the future.

Derek Hulse is a member of the ETFO executive staff.