10/22/2013 01:14 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

UC Should Honor Union Contracts and Treat Postdoctoral Scholars Fairly

This time of year, students are starting at University of California campuses all over the state. But they aren't the only ones arriving for the first time. Thousands of post-doctoral researchers (or "postdocs"), a majority of whom are recent immigrants on guest worker visas, are orienting themselves to new cities and positions at UC.

Postdocs' presence in UC labs helps burnish the university's reputation as an engine for scientific knowledge and innovation. For more than a dozen years, UC has developed more patents than any other university - and its researchers produce an average of four inventions every day. This research also leads to UC winning over $4 billion each year in public and private grants and contracts. By any calculation, postdocs provide great benefits to the UC system.

Unfortunately, UC has been violating its contract with the postdoc union, UAW Local 5810, and misleading newly-immigrated researchers by claiming they do not qualify for employer-sponsored health coverage, forcing many to purchase expensive plans on the open market.

To provide some background: while UC benefits from the work being done by postdocs, many come having won fellowship awards from outside sources that pay their salaries. All UC needs to provide is lab space, research materials and a modest amount to cover health benefits.

Despite being essentially free labor, hundreds of postdocs were lied to by UC and told they could not enroll in UC-sponsored plans even though it is expressly stated in the postdoc union contract that all postdocs are eligible for health benefits. These deceptions took a number of forms and had disastrous effects on the researchers' lives and careers.

Some postdocs were told that they had to pay up to $1200 for the same plan other postdocs are charged less than $40. Others were told they had to seek out inferior high-deductible coverage, exposing them to massive financial risk should they have a medical emergency. And many of these researchers had young children and some were expecting new babies.

This is unacceptable and when our union learned what was happening, we filed grievances to resolve the issue. The press got interested and union members also got involved -- circulating petitions, writing op-eds in campus papers, and notifying elected representatives. In response to postdoc activism, the chairs of the California Assembly and Senate Health Committees, Drs. Pan and Hernandez, sent letters to UC President Mark Yudof asking to resolve this situation.

In response, UC finally agreed to look at the situation and work towards making the affected individuals whole. But since then, UC has cancelled two scheduled meetings. It's past time for UC to play fair and reimburse these postdocs for their out-of-pocket costs due to its contract violations.

As Janet Napolitano enters office as the new UC President, she has an opportunity to resolve this situation so that my colleagues can get back to focusing on the research they came here to do.

All we ask is that UC abide by the contracts it signed. The delays need to end. They should resolve this problem now.