December 10, 2009

Postdoc Hall of Shame (please spread the shame)

Category: Academic,Insurance,Not Wholesome — Biella @ 3:19 pm

Postdoc Hall of Shame

So a few years ago I got stuck with no health insurance as I had a fellowship that had for its history accepted professors (with health insurance) not fresh off the boat PhDs as was the case with me. Since I was at a Large State school it was nearly impossible for me to get insurance and finally I ended up paying 400 a month and getting a whole lot of headache. In many ways my ordeal was a fluke following a change of policy and this fellowship now provides insurance to its postdocs.

Increasingly, however, it seems like a number of postdoctoral fellowships shirk from their duties and don’t provide a drop of health insurance. Given the academic job market, many academics don’t have any choice but to accept these positions and if they don’t come with insurance, well then these folks are shelling out thousands upon thousands of dollars for basic, really lousy, coverage. Given that universities for the most part have decent, even in some cases kick ass insurance, with a large pool of people, shutting postdocs out of their pool is.. gross and just plain wrong.

One of my fellow friends, currently on the market and currently screwed by her last postdoc wrote up a short document (aka Academic Labor Hall of Shame) and I thought I would post it here as it gets to the heart of the issues and starts shaming some of these shameful universities. If you know of other postdoctoral positions that don’t offer insurance, please please leave a comment. We will include it in the hall of shame.

Academic Labor Hall of Shame

Universities like to promote themselves as bastions of enlightenment, but their treatment of temporary and hidden employees is often anything but enlightened. Or progressive. Or fair.

1. Postdoctoral fellows and researchers:

There is a growing trend towards classing postdocs as “not employees”. I learned this recently when I was laid off from postdoctoral position at the University of Pennsylvania. I planned to extend my health insurance through COBRA, which is currently federally subsidized for workers who lost their jobs during the financial crisis. I was shocked when Penn initially claimed that I was not eligible for the subsidy (made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the so-called “stimulus act”). Their reason was that postdocs were not classed by Penn as employees. I appealed this with the Office of General Counsel and after a few weeks was told that I was indeed eligible, as Penn had found “an inconsistency in [their] policy for certain categories of post docs between tax treatment and the availability of COBRA/ARRA”. This means that while I am in fact eligible for this subsidy, postdocs paid through many other classes of grants are still not.

If you want to see an example of this process of sorting some postdocs into “not employee” status, here is another one:
Postdocs on training grants or on individual fellowships (roughly 25% of VUMC postdocs) receive a stipend and are specifically excluded from the employee classification. They do not pay FICA and do not receive employee benefits. Their health insurance is provided and purchased separately. [by whom?]

Even if Vanderbilt does in this case make provisions for these postdocs to receive health insurance, there is abundant evidence that some postdocs are outright excluded, as in this example at Stanford:
Stanford makes no provision for fellows to purchase health insurance, and the Institute will not provide medical insurance or other benefits. External fellows must bring their own medical coverage with them or purchase an individual plan during their stay in California.

This is also quite apparent when you look into the outfits that profit from selling health insurance to postdocs (because their universities don’t provide them any):

Also, take a look at the policy they and you’ll note that it stinks: it excludes such luxuries as preventive care, birth control, and chemotherapy. I’m not making this up:

December 5, 2009

Category: Not Wholesome,Politics,Toxins — Biella @ 9:58 am

The compensation U.S. veterans now receive for herbicide-related illnesses was gained only after a long, hard-fought battle in which the lines between science and politics were often blurred.

Stunningly written and depressing piece of investigate journalism about Agent Orange’s continued presence, wreaking havoc in the lives of many.

August 5, 2009

Defective by Design, the Kindle

Category: Not Wholesome,Politics — Biella @ 12:46 pm

Most readers of this blog are well aware of recently Amazon kindle 1984 creepiness, so I won’t rehearse the details here again. If you care about these issues, well, Defective by Design has a petition you can sign.

July 16, 2009

Kinda sick(o)

Category: Insurance,Not Wholesome,Politics — Biella @ 7:58 am

Bill Moyers has obtained this health insurance document outlining how to react to the movie Sicko. Pretty fascinating read.

May 6, 2009

Not Crazy Just Nuts

Category: Food,IP Law,Not Wholesome,Politics — Biella @ 7:13 pm

So I am sipping some hot chocolate made from a recently purchased cream substitute by the name of Mimiccreme. Honestly, the stuff tastes good and better, it froths, unlike most non-dairy substitutes. Yet there is a hitch (there always is). As I was whisking away at my cream (mixed with water), I was staring blankly at the box and noticed that they have applied for a patent, which is indeed the case. Since their formula is made out of nuts, their motto is “Not Crazy Just Nuts” and if they are granted the patent (though I am confused as to what they are trying to patent) it will be Nuts and Crazy as well.

update: Ettienne pointed us in the comments to the the patent application

April 5, 2009

End of an era

Category: New York City,Not Wholesome — Biella @ 6:03 am

New York City is home to fantastic set of libraries, including the the mothership of libraries, the NYPL. My favorite library is one that is much smaller, located in the north of Manhattan on the campus of Columbia University: East Asian Starr. Quiet and compact, there are tall ceilings, dark wood, stained class windows, and reading nooks. When I enter, it feels like I step back in time (if I ignore the laptops, at least). When I was an undergraduate there, it was my library of choice and I logged many hours there and have yet to find a library I so love.

I also was fond of the place because of their discreet open door policy. When I was a student there, over a decade back, they were supposed to ask for you ID but they never did. When I returned back to NYC in 2007, I was thrilled to find this practice of ethical inattentiveness was still followed by the student works behind the desk. I always wanted to find out more about what sustained this practice but I never dared or was too lazy to do so.

So I was pretty saddened when I popped in the library on Friday to discover a new security system that requires you to scan your ID to get in. There were large signs also indicating such, clearly seething with some passive aggressive anger expressing disbelief that this library had managed to evade security for over decade. So while it is a real shame that this gem is no longer a place that one–anyone–can enter at will, it is nice to know that it took so long for someone to notice.

November 16, 2008

Getting the attention of large organizations

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Not Wholesome — Biella @ 5:41 am

A few years ago, I posted a story about my frustrations with Blue Cross Blue Shield. They were not coughing up the dough for a 4000 dollar bill and for the life of me, I could not get them to do it and I could not even get in touch with people in the organization to help me. After that post circulated, the Public Relations director wrote me and this helped me get the access I needed to eventually get all the money (it did take almost 3 years though and I should write about that but later).

Though the ethical stakes and scenario are totally different, I have had equal problems contacting someone, a live body, a person who might reply to an email, a person who might return a phone call, from the American Anthropological Association. Next week is their Annual Meeting in San Francisco, CA and I am giving a presentation. I simply want to inquire whether there is A/V equipment in the room for if there is not, I need to do some serious shuffling of my talk because it is currently so dependent on the audio visual components.

Given that I coughed up $ 400 bucks (and some change) to be a member and to attend the zoo that is this conference, given that it costs money to fly there, given that it is a member supported organization, one would think that one could just get a simple answer to a simple question. I realize they are not staffed to field endless inquiries but it is a conference they are putting on and thus, I do expect an answer or basic information about the A/V equipment (which we also requested when we signed up) especially after 1.5 months of trying.

Anyhow, I am frustrated and I realize this is a really silly and small annoyance. But if no one ever calls them on it, there is no way for them to every change their archaic and pathetic ways.

April 18, 2008

Think about Copyright

Category: IP Law,New York,Not Wholesome,Politics — Biella @ 5:54 am

This is a very local copyright story that concerns a local NYC coffee shop by the name of Think and a NYU student but it is this locality, or the fact that copyright regimes often act as a barricade in everyday, “mundane” situations, which makes these regimes so problematic in the first place.

Oh, the trauma

Category: Not Wholesome,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 5:18 am

If only I had this book My Beautiful Mommy when I was a youthful spring chicken, I may have grown with a less traumatized soul. It is a “book that helps kids cope with mommy’s plastic surgery” and without such an aid, I was lost, so lost.

October 17, 2007

My Ongoing Saga with BCBS

So here is a real (and positive) update.

So today I was on the phone with a very kind BCBS employee to schedule an in-person appeal meeting where I would present my case to a group of doctors (not affiliated with BCBS). Thankfully on the phone she mentioned that the only pre-existing condition left was an allergy and I was like, “no, how about all the skin stuff?” (this list is too long to list) and she was like all of those were overturned in August and so are not considered pre-existing conditions.” I was shocked and thrilled. She then faxed the letter that never got to me because it was sent to an old address in NJ (that I had changed this summer) .. So now we are moving somewhere good…

More soon but I wanted to pass on the good news!


It is clear to me that a “clearinghouse site” for complaints against Blue Cross Blue Shield would yield a lot of traffic. My post complaining about my problems with BCBJ Horizon of NJ has received constant comments with people posting their horror stories.

I have not moved to create such a site yet, because I am hoping that the outcome of my appeal will be positive and that I can report that going through the appeal process as they set up can lead to fair and just outcome.

But the frustrating thing is 3 emails and 2 phone calls placed this and last week to inquire simply about the status of my appeal has been met with a wall of silence. Frustrating…. I am going to try to contact them again this week and if not… I will have to file another complaint with the dept of Banking and Insurance over their inability to respond to me about the appeal process.