my employer might drop our health insurance — what can I do?

A reader writes:

Yesterday, I overheard a conversation between the owner of the company and our accountant where they discussed dropping the company’s health insurance plan. (Note — we were in an open area, they were being loud and speaking openly, and I said hi when I came into the area to alert them that I was there, so I wasn’t snooping!)

Apparently, rates are being increased again, and they are leaning towards just dropping the plan altogether. If past experience with the way the owner handles things like this is indicative of future behavior, it is likely that she’ll tell us just a few days before the change, and offer little or no compensation to make up for it. It’s upsetting on a lot of levels — when we negotiate raises, the owner is always making a big deal about how our health insurance is part of our compensation and how she’s such a generous person to offer it to us, so I am going to feel like this is a pay cut if this happens, and of course, like everyone, I have basic healthcare needs and want to make sure I am protected.

If it does happen, what is the best way to try to negotiate additional money so I can pay for my own insurance? I am searching for another job for other reasons, but as the process may take a while, I am concerned about losing healthcare in the meantime. Another issue is that if she really does not tell us until a few days before, as she has in the past with changes like this, do I have any obligation to warn my coworkers or confront the boss earlier so it’s in the open? I am generally healthy, but I worry about a few coworkers who have some minor health issues that might bankrupt them if they lose insurance coverage, a few who are parents of young kids, one who is a cancer survivor who needs yearly checks, etc. I am sure many of us would appreciate the chance to get one more physical in or one more prescription filled before we lose coverage.

Why not ask directly, since it’s clear that you were right there when they were discussing it?

Yes, it’s not polite to eavesdrop or comment on conversations that you weren’t a part of, but sometimes you can’t help overhearing things, and sometimes those things are alarming enough that it wouldn’t make sense to pretend you didn’t hear. After all, if what you’d overheard was “today is Jane’s last day,” and you were Jane, you’d probably ask about that, right? (Actually, some people wouldn’t even ask about that, but they should.)

Say something like this to her: “When I was in the room with you and Bob yesterday, I couldn’t help overhearing that we might drop our insurance plan altogether. I don’t mean to intrude on a private conversation, but since that would have such a significant impact, I wanted to check with you and see if that’s something you’re considering, especially since it’s the kind of thing that it would help to have as much advance notice of as possible.”

No matter what her answer — whether she says yes or no or that she’s not sure, or whether she doesn’t answer you at all, and even if she bristles at you asking — you should then follow up by, “If things do go in that direction, I’d like to ask that we get as much notice as possible, so that we can use the coverage while we have it.” She may be clueless enough that you actually need to point that out to her.

Depending on how the conversation goes and what kind of rapport you have with her, you can also point out that insurance is a requirement for many people when deciding whether or not to accept a job, that it was part of the benefits package that you signed up for when you were hired, and that eliminating it is likely to cause significant hardship and morale problems for people on staff, as well as make it hard to hire good people in the future. You could also suggest that people might strongly prefer to simply pay an additional portion of the premiums themselves rather than lose the coverage altogether.

And if your company does end up dropping the insurance coverage, you can certainly try to negotiate for additional money so that you can purchase your own, pointing out again that insurance was part of the benefits package that you signed up for when you were hired, and that it factored into your initial salary negotiations. You might not get it, but you can and should make the case for it … and if you don’t get it (or even if you do), then you can decide whether you still want to stay under these new terms.

Given the way the U.S. health insurance system is structured, an employer deciding to drop their coverage is a Big Deal Big Thing to do to employees, particularly when they have employees who took their jobs there with the understanding that insurance was part of the package. I hope you don’t have to deal with it — and if it does happen, I hope your boss hears loud and clear that it’s unacceptable, in the form of people going elsewhere and telling her why.

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