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Wednesday, Jul. 06, 2011 at 7:59 PM
The supermarket workers in So Cal have gone over three months without agreeing on a new contract. The fight is mostly over health care benefits; if they lose, all workers in retail will see benefits decline.
Unionized supermarket workers stand out in the retail labor market because, unlike the many workers at stores like Target and Wal-Mart, they get relatively high wages and relatively good health insurance.
Their basic insurance is administered by a “trust” which is something like an insurance company. Their coverage is the Kaiser HMO, and while it's not the “Cadillac” plan, it's appears to be a good plan. Kaiser is a good hospital – despite what the movie Sicko said about it. It's the closest thing to “socialized medicine” we have, though it's a private company running it. The insurance company operates the hospitals, clinics and pharmacies.
Presently, all workers are covered under a group health plan. This is an “everyone in, nobody out” plan that creates a large, diverse risk pool. Group health plans help moderate costs putting younger, healthier members together with older members, and also younger people forming new families. Part of the “deal” is that young parents get benefits for their kids that they can't afford, but stay in the plan through their 20s and 30s, when they earn more money, but don't use healthcare. Later, in their 40s and 50s and onward, they use the system a bit more, and by their 60s and 70s, are using it heavily again.
What the supermarket corporations wish to do is individualize the health insurance plan. By shifting costs onto the employees, they create pressure on the lowest paid, generally younger workers, to opt out of paying into the group insurance plan, unless they plan to have kids.
According to the supermarkets, health insurance costs will start at a week. Presumably, there are higher rates for families and older workers. a week isn't much, but to someone earning near minimum wage, it's nearly 0 a year, which is probably what they pay for rent. It's a lot of money.
The upper limit wasn't defined, but the UFCW facebook mentions 96 per year, which is a week. Also, there's a 00 deductible, which means that several of the first visits and prescriptions are going to be paid 100% out of pocket by the workers. Before the insurance kicks in, there's 96 out-of-pocket. Suppose someone's making .30 an hour. That out-of-pocket is ten weeks work!
Some people with the resources to afford this plan will opt-out of it because their spouse has better insurance.
When people start to opt-out of group coverage, the risk pool shrinks, and the cost of insurance to the remainder of the group may change. If it's young people leaving, the cost of insurance will rise. If it's older people leaving, the cost will drop... except that older people will never want to exit the group plan, so just forget about this alternative scenario. There ain't no “two sides” to this – raise insurance costs, and the young and poor will opt-out. Then, when the young families get pregnant, and it's classified as a pre-existing condition, it won't get covered, and the families will be in deep debt to the hospital.
Supermarket work is physical work. People are on their feet, and many are lifting and moving boxes. (The shelves don't fill themselves.) Some stores still have people shoving carts around too. So they need group health insurance with age and gender diversity.
Suppose you're not working at one of the big three markets. Why the hell should you care about the situation at the big three?
Well, the existence of middle class supermarket jobs probably causes wages to rise a little bit. After all, these stores are in the same labor market. When one company pays a little more, the workers will flock to that company. To compete for labor, the other companies must raise wages. In this case, it's the great benefits that the union got them.
The big three are looking at stores like Whole Foods, which have similar high-deductible healthcare plans. Whole Foods has high prices and profits, despite having a psychotic CEO, and manage to pay poorly and still exist. Their crappy management have yet to sink the store, and their image is generally good.
Is that the future? An organic, grass fed, exploited worker with crap insurance?
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