Verizon Communications is notifying 45,000 striking union employees that it will cut off health-care coverage effective Aug. 31 for those still on the picket line, a step the Communications Workers of America called a scare tactic.
Union-represented Verizon employees in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions have been on strike since Aug. 7. CWA represents about 33,000 Verizon workers, while the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers represents some 12,000.
This week Verizon began notifying striking employees that their health-care coverage will be terminated if they are still off the job at the end of the month.
"Verizon is trying to scare workers," CWA communications director Candice Johnson said in a statement. According to Johnson, in some past strike situations, Verizon has not threatened to cut off health care for workers "at least not at this point in negotiations."
Verizon spokesman Rich Young said the company sent the letters "because we started getting questions from employees. This is standard procedure."
Under federal COBRA regulations, Verizon employees can extend their health-care coverage for between $4,800 to $10,000 per year for individual plans or $10,000 to $20,000 for family plans. "The unions have said they'll help cover those costs. We hope they do," Young said.
According to Young, the 2008 contract between Verizon and the unions stipulated that in the event of a strike the company would not be responsible for health-care coverage after Aug. 30, 2011.
"It was clearly stated in the contract that the union bosses approved. The union bosses are well aware of this provision," Young said in an e-mail.
On the 11th day of the contentious strike, Verizon and the unions again were scheduled to meet in Rye Brook, N.Y., and Philadelphia.
According to Young, "there's been progress made on some issues" but he declined to elaborate.
Verizon is seeking a number of concessions from the CWA and IBEW, including requiring workers to pay health-care premiums, having more flexible work rules, reducing sick days, eliminating job-security provisions and freezing pensions (while the company would match up to 9% of salary toward workers' 401(k) plans).
The unions claim that Verizon's demands, taken together, would cost union members $20,000 annually.