Columbia rejects union request to extend longtime employees’ health care benefits

By Camryn Cutinello, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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After 22 years working for Columbia, Michael Bright said he is most impressed by the care he’s seen co-workers give to students. Bright himself has long-lasting friendships with students and often rented out his second-floor apartment to them.

“I’ve been a part of something special,” Bright said. “The whole college is fairly obsessed, exceptional on how they treat students and what they do for the students. But in Film and Video, or Cinema [and] Television Arts, I saw people going way beyond what they needed to do in order to give service to the students.”

While Bright and colleague Mary Mattucci have fond memories of their combined 60-plus years at the college, their last days here have not been the happiest.

Bright, a former administrative assistant in the Cinema and Television Arts Department, and Mattucci, an administrative assistant in the Communication Department, learned their positions were being eliminated in August.

Mattucci has worked at Columbia for nearly 40 years. Her 40th anniversary at the college will be Oct. 16, and she will wrap up her Columbia career Nov. 13.

The decision received backlash, with the full-time faculty of the Communication Department writing a letter to the editor in support of Mattucci and praising her work and personal qualities, and the United Staff of Columbia College requesting the school extend health care coverage for Bright and Mattucci.

Both Bright and Mattucci are just months away from being eligible for Medicare coverage. The staff union failed in its attempt to get the college to provide gap medical coverage for the few months before their 65th birthdays when each would qualify for Medicare.

Craig Sigele, academic manager in the Communication Department and president of USoCC, said in an Aug. 31 interview that Mattucci and Bright both received the minimum severance package as negotiated by the union. A 90-day notice is required by the contract, along with two weeks of severance pay after those 90 days. According to Sigele, Bright was not asked to work the final 90 days, but Mattucci was given the option, and she chose to continue working.

Sigele said the union wrote to President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim, informing him of the elimination of the two positions and expressing concern that the minimum severance requirement was not enough. The union also met with the college in a labor-management meeting to express these concerns.

Sigele said Terence Smith, special counsel for Labor Relations, informed the staffers and the union that they would not receive enhancements beyond those outlined in the contract. Smith declined the Chronicle’s request for an interview.

The staff union has started a GoFundMe page to raise the money needed to cover health care insurance for Bright and Mattucci until they can qualify for Medicare. The page says Mattucci will be eligible for Medicare Feb. 1 and Bright will be eligible April 1. The goal set is $8,000. As of Tuesday evening, the site had raised over $4,000.

“I reached out several times,” Sigele said of his efforts to speak with college administrators. “And each time, I was told that they were still having high-level negotiations about this, that they’re concerned about treating people differently. And I pointed out that … Mary’s someone who’s been here for 40 years. And all they were offering was what is in the union contract. So nothing beyond that. So that means that if there wasn’t a union contract, does that mean they’d [have] been shown the door with nothing?”

In an interview with the Chronicle and members of the administration Sept. 9, Kim said he could not go into detail about personnel issues, but he added that layoffs are an “unfortunate possibility” when an institution is going through financial challenges. Kim said as the college deals with the pandemic, the administration has tried to protect employment, but managers are “assessing priorities.”

In the same interview, Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David said while the school is facing financial challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, September is usually the time when decisions regarding employment are made, as the budget cycle begins in September. Without mentioning any employees by name, David said employees whose jobs were eliminated are “not people who are identified to meet some kind of budget target.” Instead she said decisions to cut positions were part of a “normal prioritization process.”

Suzanne McBride, dean of Graduate Studies and former chair of the Communication Department, supervised Mattucci.

“She was a wonderful co-worker, always positive and willing to jump in to help with most anything we needed,” McBride said. “And particularly during COVID — she came into the office almost every day, as soon as people could be back on campus. And she really was the glue that kept our department running, particularly during that time.”

Mattucci previously worked in the now disbanded Radio Department, but according to Matt Cunningham, assistant professor of instruction in the Communication Department and faculty advisor for WCRX, Mattucci was the Radio Department.

“She’d be the first one here and the last one to leave,” Cunningham said. “She’s a go-getter. As someone that’s been a part of this community longer than anyone else, it’s a shame to let her go.”

Elio Leturia, associate professor in the Communication Department, said Mattucci is “the most helpful person” and an advocate for students. Leturia said Mattucci keeps in contact with many alumni and has been the link keeping the Communication Department together.

“It saddens me because she’s part of Columbia,” Leturia said. “I don’t know what [it] is going to be after she leaves, and leaving with two weeks severance is also hard to swallow. I always heard working in different organizations in the U.S. saying, ‘Oh, we are like a family.’ And then thinking, ‘Is that what you do to family?'”

Bright is a founding member of USoCC and was the union’s first president. He said the union was formed to protect rights the staff thought could be taken away, and he hopes the union continues to do that. He said his experience with Columbia has “for the most part, been phenomenal,” but he said the school has changed a lot.

“Columbia was a family,” Bright said. “I don’t think that’s going to continue. There’s still a lot of great people there. And of course, the wonderful students and faculty and staff and administrators, but I think all those people are facing a time that they can’t stop.”