Fitness, swimming instructor fights for college health coverage

Hannah Scott, Hannah Scott, and Hannah Scott

After nearly three decades of employment, years of exceeding class loads and seven months of negotiations, instructor Sally Saenger has been conclusively denied health insurance coverage from City College’s plan.

Saenger, who teaches swimming and fitness for both Adult Education and City College classes, feels she has the right to partake in the benefits provided to adjunct instructors, she said.

After her denial during both formal and informal negotiations, she filed a grievance, or complaint, with the college addressing the injustice, she said.

The Board of Trustees decided March 3, within the fourth and final step of the grievance, to uphold the denial of health care. Upon Saenger’s request to hold a face-to-face meeting with the administration before the decision was made, she was not given a response.

“After 28 years of part-time instruction, she was not worth five minutes of your time,” said Cornelia Alsheimer, Saenger’s Instructors’ Association representative, to the board at the March 25 meeting. “Hands down, this is the saddest story in the history of this board of trustees.”

The board’s handling of Saenger’s case “sends a devastating signal that this board does not care for part-time faculty,” Alsheimer said.

Board president Joe Dobbs declined comment to The Channels. Former president and board member Kay Alexander also did not respond to inquiries.

Saenger addressed the board during the meeting’s opening public session. This was the first time she had spoken directly to those actively denying her hard-earned health coverage, she said.

“Dr. Serban had ignored my request to meet in person,” she said to the board, with Superintendent-President Andreea Serban sitting at her left. “I’ve been denied health coverage through e-mail.”

Upon request of either party, an in-person meeting must be held, according to the college’s grievance procedure.

Serban and Dr. Sue Ehrlich, vice president of human resources and legal affairs, had no comment for The Channels regarding acknowledgment of Saenger’s request to meet.

Alsheimer, Saenger and a student from one of Saenger’s Adult Ed classes addressed the board, speaking to the injustice, criticizing its decision and pleading for a change.

“It’s David and Goliath,” Saenger said. “It’s one little instructor against the district.”

According to the five-year-old Appendix C to the college’s health insurance program, adjunct instructors may take part in health coverage if they meet specific eligibilities. For Saenger, the eligibility in question is whether she is teaching a large enough class load.

She feels she not only meets the requirement, but also exceeds it.

The document states that for adjunct faculty, there is minimum requirement of a 50 percent load of classes for the past six of eight semesters taught. Saenger exceeds this requirement with a 67 percent load of credit and non-credit courses for the past 28 years, she said.

In order to stay under this 67 percent teaching load limit, her classes have been adjusted, cut and shared. Saenger said she has even had to become a substitute instructor.

Yet the denial of grievance is based on Saenger’s Adult Ed courses not counting towards her teaching load units, she said.

“How can you count non-credit Continuing Ed towards limiting someone, and then turn around and not count that load toward health care participation?” she said. “It leaves us flabbergasted in the Instructors’ Association.”

There are currently nine adjunct instructors who receive health-care coverage from the college under Appendix C, Ehrlich said.

There are currently 448 part-time instructors at City College.

In an e-mail to The Channels, Ehrlich said the matter was “negotiable” whether she was satisfied that the health program was serving its purpose for part-time faculty.

After the district’s initial denial, Saenger received casual legal counsel from an Adult Ed student. She was advised to pursue further.

“She is a very unusual case – an exception,” said Lynne Stark, president of the association. While the creation of Appendix C was targeted towards credit faculty, the situation of being both a credit and non-credit instructor was never realized, she said.

“It never occurred to us,” Stark said. “It slipped through the cracks.”

But Saenger deserves to have health care, she said, because her exclusion from participation is not in the letter of the law, and her inclusion is within the spirit of the law.

“We need to rewrite the letter,” she said, to specifically include the two or three instructors in Saenger’s situation who hold a delicate balance between credit and non-credit teaching.

After Saenger’s situation was brought to the attention of the association, “Stark immediately and officially approached the college administration with a carefully crafted Memorandum of Understanding to clarify the contract language,” Alsheimer said. A Memorandum of Understanding is an urgent amendment to a contract made between scheduled contract negotiations and changes.

But the district refused to discuss any amendments, she said.

Saenger formed a grievance to the college hoping to be heard, she said. But she was denied, via e-mail, without answers to her arguments or the meeting she had requested.

Last year, Saenger was given the faculty excellence award. Now, Saenger doesn’t understand why they’re setting up the roadblock, she said.

After the board’s decision, Saenger finds herself between a rock and a hard place, she said. She can drop the whole thing and wait for contract negotiations to commence, or she can sue the college.

As much as she doesn’t want to put her tail between her legs, she feels uncomfortable pursuing a lawsuit, she said.

“I love Santa Barbara City College, I don’t want to sue them,” she said. “But they’ve pushed me up against the wall. It’s unjust.”

For now, Alsheimer is asking the college administration to “do the right thing,” and immediately negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding to include “loyal instructors like Sally Saenger,” she said.