Stealth Pay Cuts

A couple of weeks ago, as Obamacare was just stumbling out of the gate, we asked our readers to tell us about the state of their own health insurance plans through their firms. Since the Recession, we have heard anecdotal evidence that some firms have been using health care cost clawbacks as a stealth expense-cutting tactic and de facto pay cut. We wondered how widespread a phenomenon this practice had become. Well, perhaps that’s a bit disingenuous. We had a strong feeling that, in this time of layoffs and all the rest of the Biglaw belt-tightening measures, that no category of expenses would be immune. And our survey results resoundingly confirm those suspicions: 89% of you tell us that your health insurance premiums have gone up since you started work at your firm.

A relevant tip showed up in the ATL inbox this week. An attorney at a prominent (V25) law firm sent us a memo outlining new changes to the firm’s health plan. Here’s an excerpt: “The deductible for the CIGNA PPO plan will change from $250 single/$750 family to $500 single/$1,000 family. Also, the PPO prescription copays [will all increase]. These changes bring our PPO plan design in line with market
practice for large law firms
(emphasis added)”…

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With the continuing partial government shutdown and the shaky rollout of Obamacare, the issue of health insurance has never been such a central and divisive topic in the national conversation. Surely there are thousands of unemployed or temping JDs who are entering the brave new world of insurance exchanges and its attendant “hiccups.” In a development that perhaps should alarm the lowest-paid support staffers at law firms, some corporations appear poised to drop “bare bones” health-care benefits altogether for low-wage employees in favor of directing such employees to the new state exchanges.

Of course, for the lawyers at firms, such developments concerning the exchanges are essentially an abstract issue. That is not to say that attorney benefits packages are not subject to “new normal” economic pressures, or that the ultimate effect of the Affordable Care Act on private health insurance packages is unknowable. As noted here way back in 2009, some firms have added health care cost clawbacks to their expense-cutting repertoire of layoffs and pay cuts. Many associates have found themselves, post-Recession, with higher premiums and deductibles and thus, a de facto salary cut. Comparing salaries and bonuses across law firms overlooks the element of health insurance costs, about which there is no equivalent transparency. Undoubtedly there are significant variations across firms in this area, and some firms that appear to pay “market” aren’t quite doing so in light of their requiring a larger fraction of health care premiums. These variations inevitably distort direct comparisons.

We’d like to bring some transparency to this topic — but we need your help….

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