Why Does Buffalo Pay for Its Teachers to Have Plastic Surgery?

How a broken collective bargaining system has kept a ridiculous, multimillion-dollar perk alive. 



In Buffalo, New York, the heart of the American Rust Belt, the public school system pays for its teachers to get plastic surgery. Hair removal. Miscrodermabrasian. Liposuction. If you can name the procedure, it's probably covered.

No, I am not exaggerating. And no, this article is not an excuse to make "Hot For Teacher" cracks. When I write that Buffalo's school system pays, I mean it literally. The perk is included as a self-insured rider in its teachers' contract. Therefore, the district has to cover the cost of each nip and tuck itself. There's no co-pay, so the school district ends up footing the entire bill. It estimates the current annual cost at $5.2 million, down from $9 million in 2009.

This in a city where the average teacher makes roughly $52,000 a year. The plastic surgery tab would pay salaries for 100 extra educators.

If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's legislative assault on public sector workers was a prime example of right-wing excess on the issue of organized labor, the story of Buffalo's teachers and their botox should be looked at as cautionary tale for the left. You see, nobody particularly wants to keep the plastic surgery rider. It's an embarrassing mole everybody agrees should be removed, a vestige of an earlier era that the school board would love to scrap, and that the teacher's union has said it's willing to give up. But because of New York's broken collective bargaining system for government employees, it's survived, ugly and intact.

As The Buffalo News has reported, the rider existed for years with little notice. It dates back at least to the 1970s, when "getting a little work done" wasn't par for the course among women (and some men) of a certain age. Instead, it was intended to cover serious reconstructive surgery on patients such as burn victims. In 1996, the rider was nearly cut. But after the daughter of a district employee was hurled through a windshield during a car wreck, requiring surgery to repair scars on her face and body, union officials lobbied to keep the benefit in place.

That was then. In the years that followed, plastic surgery boomed in the United States thanks to non-invasive procedures like Botox and laser-skin treatments. Buffalo doctors began advertising directly to teachers through their union's newsletter. Predictably, the school district's tab fattened. In six years, usage of the perk tripled, and by 2009, about 500 employees were taking advantage of the opportunity to get free cosmetic surgery. A single doctor billed the district $4 million.

When news of the doctors' bills broke, there was, predictably, a public outcry. Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, who did not return calls for comment, said then that his union would be happy to drop the rider during the next round of contract negotiations. But therein lay the problem.

Buffalo's teachers haven't had a new contract since the last one expired in 2004. That's because they haven't needed one, thanks to a 1982 state law known as the Triborough Amendment. Under the law, when a public employee's contract expires, they are allowed to continue working under its terms until their union reaches a new agreement with the state. They get to keep all their benefits, along with any yearly salary increase built into the old deal. In the case of the Buffalo schools, teachers have been getting yearly 2.5% "step increases" since 2007, when the state-imposed control board that oversees Buffalo's municipal finances unfroze salaries.

As a result, there isn't much incentive for the union to sit down and hash out a new contract. Not in these days of government austerity, and not when they might be asked to make additional concessions on fundamental issues such as teacher evaluations.

"The urgency of negotiating a new contract isn't really there," said Amber Dixon, interim-superintendant for Buffalo's schools. "You get to keep your benefits. You get to keep your cosmetic rider. You get to keep your 2.5% step increase. It makes getting back to the table difficult."

Collective bargaining only works if both sides have an incentive to deal. That's not conservatism. It's realism. And New York's dysfunctional system is Exhibit A. It's created a trap for cities by requiring them to keep paying out indefinitely on old contracts negotiated in flusher times. Without the ability to work out new terms, local governments are left to resort to layoffs.

Such was the case in Buffalo, where at one point the school board offered to avoid 100 layoffs if the union suspended the cosmetic surgery rider for a year. As Dixon explained to me, the union declined. It only wanted to deal with the rider during a full contract negotiation.

Those teachers who got to keep their jobs? Well, at least they're still sitting pretty.