The University of San Francisco stopped paying into medical reimbursement accounts of employees who were teaching remotely during the pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The University of San Francisco stopped paying into medical reimbursement accounts of employees who were teaching remotely during the pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Remote work exposes loophole in SF health care mandate

Ronen introducing legislation requiring medical reimbursement contributions to continue

Months after the sudden shift to remote work last year, some employees realized they were no longer receiving health care contributions as required in San Francisco.

Under the 2006 Health Care Security Ordinance, city employers are mandated to either provide insurance or pay into a program providing some level of care for workers. The worker could choose Healthy San Francisco or a fund known as City Option, a medical reimbursement account.

But as adjunct part-time professors at the University of San Francisco slowly discovered, their medical reimbursement accounts had stalled because, as it turns out, working from home outside the city limit means the law doesn’t apply.

“A university like USF finding loopholes in a law to avoid paying their employees health insurance during a pandemic was a new low,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen told the Examiner. “As we’re going to see working from home as more part of our new normal in society, it’s important that we get it clear right now. Before this becomes a trend, before it spreads like wildfire, we’re going to nip it in the bud.”

Ronen is expected to introduce legislation on Tuesday to close the loophole, covering employees who would otherwise work for an entity in San Francisco but are restricted from doing so due to a health order. A more comprehensive law around remote work is intended down the line.

Under the 2006 law, medium and large San Francisco employers must pay a certain amount on their workers’ health care per hour worked. Workers are often unaware of or confused by the benefit and, as of October, more than $400 million collected by The City sat untouched.

But some adjunct professors began noticing late last year and came to Jill Schepmann, president of USF’s Part Time Faculty Association, who said she had no luck discussing the issue with administration officials.

“There’s a global pandemic and this could be important money for our members,” Schepmann said. “They just said they weren’t willing to change it. At a time like this, anything helps and this kind of contribution is built to support people like this.”

Schepmann brought it to the San Francisco Labor Council as a delegate in December, and found that other unions had not yet heard of a similar issue from other employers.

USF did not directly respond to inquiries about health care contributions ending for adjunct faculty living and working outside San Francisco. The university has about 600 adjunct professors each semester.

“USF provides an opportunity for adjunct professors to purchase health care coverage through the University Kaiser Health Care Plan,” said spokesperson Kellie Samson in an email. “We’re proud of our long-standing efforts to provide health care coverage to our adjunct faculty.”

One adjunct professor, who asked to be anonymous for fear of retaliation, said the insurance offered was significantly more expensive than the plan they have through another employer. But they found the medical reimbursement account offered through USF, which can be used for excess health care costs like co-pays or dental work, to be a financial relief living in the Bay Area — until there was suddenly nothing in there to rely on.

The professor had hoped the Jesuit university would see it as an ethical obligation to continue to contribute at a time of deep uncertainty and severe sickness everywhere. A family member working remotely outside San Francisco still received MRA contributions, they added.

“I’m not bankrupt because of it, but it was a shock,” they said. “I don’t think people realized it was happening. It’s really disappointing.”

The law would not be retroactive in order to ward off any potential legal challenges, Ronen’s office said. It would take effect 30 days after enactment.

While it doesn’t bring back the funds lost over the past year, Schepmann said it was reassuring to know their issue was heard and adjunct professors teaching in the summer and fall could still benefit.

“There’s just a lot at stake for us in this,” Schepmann said. “This is helpful for us to feel like we can be heard and that it matters to speak up.”

Ronen is expected to introduce the legislation at Tuesday’s regular Board of Supervisors meeting.

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