Aug. 27, 2004, 10:50PM

Generous teachers may see payback

Program would allow up to $400 in reimbursements for school supplies


Texas teachers who spend their money to buy classroom supplies may be reimbursed up to $400 after a $3 million federal boost to a state program.

Gov. Rick Perry asked the Texas Education Agency to provide the additional money so school districts can apply for it beginning Sept. 1. The $3 million provided by the education agency last year has been spent.

"Every year there are tens of thousands of teachers who buy supplies and teaching aids for their classrooms because they want their students to have every opportunity to learn and succeed, and I believe this generosity should be recognized by the state," Perry said.

Popular program

Teachers in participating districts are eligible to be reimbursed up to $400, with as much as $200 coming from local funds and $200 from the TEA, which distributes federal funds.

The program, created last year by the Legislature, quickly proved popular, with 161 districts and charter schools, employing 40,000 teachers, applying for the grants.

Among the area districts participating in the program are Houston, Klein and Aldine.

Houston elementary schoolteacher Ellen Shaw, who spends "hundreds"of her own money on markers, books and other supplies for her students, applauded the decision to replenish the program.

Adriana Villarreal, a spokeswoman for HISD, said the program helps provide 13,000 teachers with $50 in annual reimbursements. She said the district has applied for the maximum $60,000 for the new school year.

An 'acknowledgment'

Houston Federation of Teachers president Gayle Fallon said educators, especially elementary teachers who need lots of visual aids for young children, spend $500 or more for supplies each year.

She said program is "an acknowledgment of their professional needs. But it doesn't include loans to kids who forgot their lunch money and the teacher forks it over."

Grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis until the money is gone. The funding is divided into three categories — large, medium and small districts — to prevent one district from receiving all the funds.

Coletta Sayer, president of the Houston Classroom Teachers Association and a fifth-grade teacher, said any financial help is welcome.

"Just this first week, I've spent up to $100 on crayons, markers, binders and other supplies for the kids," she said.

Sayer said she buys the supplies to ensure all students have the same type of equipment. She and other teachers also buy big-ticket items like digital cameras or other electronics to use in the classroom.

"Teaching doesn't nickel and dime you, it five and 10 bucks you to death," Sayer said.


 Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


Sept. 6, 2004, 12:48AM


Unions get out message during Labor Day party

AFL-CIO working to broaden unions' appeal in a time of shrinking rolls


Labor union members gathered Sunday in Pasadena to cook brisket, chicken and ribs, serving up the barbecue with a generous side of political commentary.

The power of unions has diminished considerably in the past 30 years both locally and nationally. Local members of the AFL-CIO — the federation of America's unions — celebrated the Labor Day weekend by sharing their message about why unions are important.

"I don't know how a person can justify to their families that they've been working for 30 years and have nothing to show for it," said John Ace Coody, president of the Pipefitters Local No. 211, referring to the lack of pensions for many nonunion laborers.

The unions also are concerned about lack of health care and low wages.

Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO, said the organization went to great lengths this year to attract non-union workers to its events, running advertisements and notifying the media. Despite rain, about 1,000 people attended the gathering Saturday, and Shaw was hoping for bigger crowds Sunday.

"We're just trying to broaden the appeal of Labor Day," he said. "We would like them to think about unions as a way to better their lives."

In the labor movement's heyday in the 1970s, 35 percent of the nation's workers belonged to unions. Today that number has dipped to 13 percent. The decline, Shaw says, is largely because so many companies have moved their manufacturing plants overseas.

"The manufacturing losses are eating us alive," he said.

Shaw believes the means to keeping unions vital is recruiting the nation's service workers, such as janitors and hotel staffs, and enrolling the immigrants who now do much of the nation's labor.

The Starvin' Actors cooking team, composed of members of the Screen Actors' Guild, complained that low-budget movies are shot in Texas because the moviemakers can persuade actors to work without pay, and, as opposed to California, the union has no power to stop them.

"They want to work 100 people for nothing all day long," actor Sonny Opiela said of the filmmakers.

With the presidential race in full swing, union members displayed buttons and signs for Democratic presidential challenger Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and had harsh words for President Bush. Shaw said the AFL-CIO invited "everybody," including Republicans, but he could not say if any showed up.

"I don't recall seeing any Republicans," Shaw said. "This administration has been very hard on union members and working families."

Jimmy Hall, the business agent for the Pipefitters Local No. 211, had a more vivid assessment of union politics.

"A working man voting Republican," he said, "is like a chicken voting for Col. Sanders."


  Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


Oct. 13, 2004, 9:07PM


Working not for a living, but to keep health benefits


When Sen. John Kerry was asked about health insurance affordability during the second presidential debate Friday night, he said he'd like to extend Medicare coverage to people 55 to 64.

It was only one proposal in a long sentence about health insurance, and if you opened a can of soda right then, you probably missed it. But allowing older workers a chance to buy into a reasonably priced group insurance plan could solve one of the biggest problems affecting many older workers.

Right now, many older people are working just for employer-provided health insurance.

They've got pensions or retirement savings built up and they've dreamt about leaving the 9-to-5 world behind. But they can't afford to buy individual insurance policies — or even find them because of pre-existing medical conditions.

Consequently, many folks are forced to wait until they reach the golden age of 65 to retire when they're eligible for Medicare or at least keep their spouse working.

Health care primary factor

While there is no hard data on those who'd prefer to retire, surveys show people work longer when they don't have retiree health care coverage compared to those who have benefits, said Frank McArdle, who heads the Washington research practice for Hewitt Associates.

McArdle, who co-wrote a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study on retiree health insurance benefits earlier this year, said he wouldn't be surprised if health care wasn't a significant factor in keeping people at work. And it's likely to become more common as companies scale back or eliminate their retiree health care benefits.

A lot of people are working at Starbucks to get those benefits, said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, recalling the ads that promote health insurance for its part-time coffee brewers.

Challenger, whose Chicago-based outplacement firm tracks employment data, pointed to the fact that the number of people with second jobs rose again last month to 7.7 million. That represents 5.5 percent of total employment.

A year ago, 7.2 million workers had more than one job.

"Working for health benefits may have something to do with it," he said, referring to the "first 401(k) generation after the pension system fell apart."

Expanding Medicare?

The idea of expanding Medicare isn't new, McArdle said. Former President Clinton and other prominent Democrats made similar proposals.

But critics complained that expanding the program — even if it were fully funded by participants — would hurt the solvency of Medicare.

Expanding Medicare could also encourage employers to drop their retiree health insurance, said Mike Naylor, director of advocacy for AARP in Washington.

The group that represents older Americans is running a pilot program to provide health insurance to those not yet eligible for Medicare, Naylor said. He said AARP is still studying the issue and hasn't yet taken a position.

President Bush is more focused on private sector solutions such as using health savings accounts, a Bush campaign official said.

Those 401(k)-like accounts that became available in January allow workers to put aside money into tax-free accounts. Employees can withdraw the money if they use it for health care expenses while working or retired.

But the accounts can only be used in conjunction with high-deductible catastrophic insurance policies that the company provides or the worker buys.

One worker ready to go

While it's impossible to say how much a Kerry program would cost because so many details are uncertain — not the least of which is whether he'll be elected — one older worker is interested in hearing more.

Ray Soliz has put in 30 years as a pipe fitter-welder for the BP refinery in Texas City. He's 58 and would like to put up his feet and relax. But he's too worried.

Luckily, Soliz has retiree health insurance through BP. But, like many companies, BP has announced it will scale back what it's willing to pay. Today it pays 80 percent of the cost. In five years it will pick up only 70 percent of the tab.

And employees who joined the company after April 1 won't be eligible.

"I don't want to retire because the company could eliminate it — like it did for future employees," said Soliz, who is also vice president of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Local 4-1, which represents the BP workers. "I don't want to take that chance."

As for a private insurance policy, Soliz said he hasn't even bothered to check because he knows he can't begin to afford it.

Future of benefits unclear

Bill Stephens, public affairs director for BP Gulf Coast Refining and Chemicals in Texas City, said he can't speculate on the future of retiree benefits.

BP still offers a competitive package of retirement and other benefits, Stephens said, but he said the company is facing the same crisis as other employers.

In the meantime, companies are advocating new ways to save for retiree health care, McArdle said.

In addition to Bush's health savings accounts, some businesses are trying to solve the retiree health insurance problem by providing so-called "health reimbursement arrangements."

These are funded by employers and can be used to pay health expenses such as premiums for retirees.

While only 2 percent of employers reported they put those kind of programs in place last year, about 25 percent said they're interested, according to Hewitt Associates.


 Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle