Prison officers dispute health insurance plan

  • A cause worth fighting: Timothy Seon, centre, president of the Prison Officers Association, and Thad Hollis, lead negotiator, speak outside of the Government Administration Building during a break in the hearing at the Supreme Court (Photograph by Blaire Simmons).

    A cause worth fighting: Timothy Seon, centre, president of the Prison Officers Association, and Thad Hollis, lead negotiator, speak outside of the Government Administration Building during a break in the hearing at the Supreme Court (Photograph by Blaire Simmons).

Prison officers fought against changes that require them to make health insurance payments in the Supreme Court yesterday.

The Bermuda Prison Officers Association argued that it had a substantial expectation that the officers would be exempted from making the payments based on their employment contracts.

But the Government said, despite the officers receiving free insurance for more than 30 years, their contracts never guaranteed it.

The Labour Dispute Tribunal ruled in August that prison officers would have to begin to pay the employee portion of their Government Employee Health Insurance contributions.

The tribunal also granted the officers pay increases of 2.5 per cent in the first financial year and 2 per cent next year.

Delroy Duncan, lawyer for the BPOA, said that even with the pay increases, the decision would result in a net loss for the prison officers.

He told the court that prison officers had received free medical care since the 1960s and employment contracts drawn up to 2017 still included provisions to allow free medical and dental care.

But the Government had recently tried to remove that benefit in negotiations in an effort to “equalise” the requirement that government workers make GEHI payments.

Mr Duncan said: “That effectively means taking away the free GEHI as documented in the contracts of employment for employees of the disciplinary forces.”

The lawyer argued that the decision, if allowed, would go against the officers’ employment contracts and, as such, that tribunal’s powers.

He said the Government had attempted to use the tribunal to resolve matters when public-sector negotiations grind to a halt, but added that such matters should be dealt with through agreed arbitration.

“The issue is when the public-sector mediation team runs out of steam, what happens then?” Mr Duncan questioned.

“For expediency’s sake, people have gone along with expanding the powers of the tribunal beyond their statutory remit.”

Mr Duncan added that the tribunal had wrongly classified the free insurance as a “procedural” benefit, rather than a “substantial” benefit.

He called on the Supreme Court to order the Government to abide by the prison officers’ existing employment contracts and to reimburse them for any health insurance payments already made.

However, Gregory Howard, from the Attorney-General’s Chambers, said the officers’ contracts did not mention insurance, but instead that they could receive medical care without out-of-pocket expenses.

Mr Howard said the contracts essentially offered to cover any copay — a benefit prison officers would retain — but it did not exempt them from deductions for health insurance.

He said the Government had paid both the employer and employee share of GEHI contributions for prisons officers since 1986 — an annual cost that has grown to $1.69 million.

Mr Howard said he had “no information” about why the Government had made the payments for the past 33 years.

He told the court that the prison officers had no legitimate expectation that they would continue to receive free insurance, and that the Government had made clear the intention to ensure that all those who benefit from the GEHI pool actually pay into it.

“We have a period of protracted negotiations about the matter where one party refused to even have it on the table for discussion,” he said.

“We have an announcement for a policy change from the House of Legislature. We have offers to cushion the change sent out in a letter prior to the hearing and they were not accepted by the officers.

“There was an offer to grandfather in existing officers. There was no give at all.”

The hearing continues.

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Published Nov 29, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 29, 2019 at 7:59 am)

Prison officers dispute health insurance plan

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