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What’s Happening to Your Health Care: 3 Things to Know Right Now

Friday, February 17th, 2017

There is definitely lots of talk about how President Donald Trump and Congress are planning to make major changes to Americans’ health benefits. That’s because Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have said that repealing the Affordable Care Act is one of their top priorities. Although it is not clear when they will act or exactly what they will do, here are three things to know right now:

1. Your health benefits are at risk, no matter where you get them:

  • Medicare: A straight-up repeal of the ACA would eliminate some Medicare benefits by reinstating the full Medicare prescription drug donut hole and taking away free preventive care. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is still pushing his plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system, meaning benefits would no longer be guaranteed and health costs for seniors and people with disabilities would go up dramatically.
  • Workplace Health Benefits: Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the powerful chairman of the tax writing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, wants to tax part of the cost of workplace health benefits by including the cost in working people’s taxable income. So does the person Trump hired to be in charge of health care, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. If you get your health benefits on the job, this will raise your taxes and lead to even higher deductibles and co-pays. Some employers could even cancel their health plans in response.
  • Health Insurance You Buy Yourself: Most media coverage is focused on what impact repeal of the ACA will have on the approximately 10 million people who now buy individual health coverage through the ACA’s health insurance marketplaces, often with the help of federal tax credits. A straight-up repeal of the ACA would not just take away the tax credits that help people buy health insurance. Full repeal also would eliminate the ACA’s protections that require insurance companies to treat people fairly, to give them meaningful insurance without tricks and traps, and not to discriminate against anyone because they have a pre-existing condition or even because of their gender.
  • Medicaid: Medicaid is the health plan run by states with significant federal funding that enables 74 million people to get the medical care they need. One-in-three kids in the United States get their health coverage from Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan. Millions of seniors and people of all ages with disabilities also count on Medicaid for nursing home care and the long-term supports and services that allow them to live independently in their homes and communities. A straight-up repeal of the ACA would take health coverage away from some 11 million people who now have benefits because the ACA allowed states to expand Medicaid. Trump and Republican leaders in Congress also want to cut Medicaid for everyone who receives it by imposing new limited caps on what the federal government will contribute, even if the cost of health care keeps going up much faster than prices in the rest of the economy. That will shift costs onto states and likely force cuts in benefits.

2. People are speaking up, and that’s having an impact on Washington: Lots of people are showing up to meet with their members of Congress about health care and to let them know just how important it is to them personally. Many people are asking their members of Congress tough questions. For example, check out this article about a Tennessee high school teacher who attended a town hall and watch the video showing her tough question for Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), Meet the Teacher Whose Powerful, Christian Defense of Obamacare Made a GOP Town Hall Go Viral. The hard questions and strong show of concern from voters are affecting what’s going on in Congress. What once was a mad dash to repeal the ACA right away has slowed to a crawl for the moment, and there now is a split among Republicans in Congress. While many congressional Republicans still want to repeal the ACA immediately regardless of whether they have a replacement, at least a few are saying they want to figure out what the impact will be on real people and how they might address the harm that will do.

3. We’re still waiting to hear what the plan for repealing and replacing the ACA is: In mid-January, Trump said he had a plan that was finished except for some finishing touches and that he was just waiting for Price to be confirmed by the Senate as his HHS secretary. Price was confirmed last Friday, so maybe we will see his plan soon. Congressional Republicans are still trying to figure out what their plan should be. Some Republicans want to go ahead with repeal of the ACA now and figure out whether and how they might replace it later.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 16, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Shaun O’Brien works for AFL-CIO.  His interests include retirement security and health care. Follow him on twitter @ShaunOBrien30.

Social Media is a Danger Zone for the Healthcare Industry

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Social media can cause big problems for healthcare workers and their employers. Because of HIPAA rules and other concerns, posting something as seemingly harmless as a selfie with a patient could ruin careers, or worse. Healthcare professionals do form bonds and friendships with some of their patients and because social media has become a place where people share details of their lives and their friends’ lives, it is understandable that a healthcare worker might slip up and post something that he or she shouldn’t. Understandable, but not excusable.

Blurred Lines

Healthcare workers are advised of HIPAA rules and know that information about their patients is confidential, but that hasn’t stopped some healthcare workers from getting into trouble for their social media posts. For example, when a police officer was brought into an emergency room and the staff was unable to save him, some posted their condolences on Facebook, complete with the name of the deceased officer. To make matters worse, the officer’s family had yet to be notified.

Certainly, the ER staffers were reacting to the heartbreak of losing a patient and doing what felt natural in the moment—sharing thoughts and feelings on social media. They were acting out of kindness.

Intent Doesn’t Matter

A post that is meant to be kind is still not OK. The bottom line is this: sharing any information about a patient is a HIPAA violation even if the social media account has the highest possible privacy settings (which are never 100% reliable), and even if the post is mourning the loss of a patient.

As Ed Bennett, director of Web strategy at University of Maryland Medical System points out, “We already have guidelines; social media is simply another form of communication. It’s no different from e-mail or talking to someone in an elevator. The safe advice is to assume anything you put out on a social media site has the potential to be public.”

What About Free Speech?

A recent social media conduct survey found that 41.2% of Americans believe that getting fired because of a social media post is an infringement of their First Amendment rights. In the private sector, it’s usually not.

The First Amendment affords Americans the right to free speech, which means they can express themselves without interference or constraint by the government. The First Amendment does not protect employees from private sector disciplinary action.

Healthcare professionals can get fired for a post, even one that does not violate HIPAA laws, as a Philadelphia hospital employee learned when she posted a racially-charged rant on social media. Word spread (because social media is not private!), someone started a change.org petition to demand that the hospital fire the employee (for a post that had nothing to do with her job) and the worker was fired.

Headaches All Around

An inappropriate social media post can become a major headache for everyone involved. According to the AMA:

Criminal penalties for a violation of HIPAA are directly applicable to covered entities—including health plans, health care clearinghouses, health care providers who transmit claims in electronic form, and Medicare prescription drug card sponsors. Individuals such as directors, employees, or officers of the covered entity, where the covered entity is not an individual, may also be directly criminally liable under HIPAA in accordance with principles of “corporate criminal liability.”

HIPAA was enacted in 1996 and social media didn’t begin to hit its stride until Facebook opened to the public in 2006. Since employers are liable, and HIPAA doesn’t explicitly address social media, many deem it prudent to have a very clear social media policy. As a healthcare employee, you should be aware of your employer’s policies, which may go above and beyond HIPAA.

Conclusion

The healthcare provider/client relationship is like no other. Healthcare professionals know the most personal details about their patients, and they care about their patients, yet they’re expected to maintain a professional relationship.

According to the US Department of Labor, “Employment of healthcare occupations is projected to grow 19 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 2.3 million new jobs. Healthcare occupations will add more jobs than any other group of occupations.” Workers of the future who have grown up with social media and habitually post random moments of their days on Snapchat or Instagram will have to learn to curb that behavior if they intend to get a job in the healthcare field—and keep it.

 

Ellen Gipko is a marketing analyst for white label SEO firm HubShout, and a writer specializing in the topics of social media and digital marketing. She has contributed content to Social Media Today, Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Journal and other industry websites.

AFL-CIO Tells Congress No Repeal Without Replacement of ACA

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Today, as Congress debates the future of the Affordable Care Act, the AFL-CIO sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and all members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Signed by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the letter urges Republican leaders to abandon plans to roll back coverage protections and declares it “reckless to repeal the ACA without providing an immediate replacement.” The letter also details how the core components of the Republican health care plan pose serious threats to working people in America.

Some key passages in the letter:

You are now poised to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with breathtaking speed at the beginning of the new Congress, without providing replacement coverage to the 30 million Americans who will become uninsured as a result. This action appears to mark just the first stage of a massive Republican plan to cut federal support for health coverage….

It is reckless to repeal the ACA without providing an immediate replacement. This approach will cause the individual insurance market to collapse, destroying coverage for millions of Americans, even if Congress provides itself with a “transition period” to try to enact an alternative to the ACA….

Workplace insurance is the leading source of health coverage for Americans, covering 178 million people. The major Republican plans levy destructive new taxes on this coverage; and their sponsors endorse the belief of most economists that these new taxes will drive employers to cut back on the health benefits they provide by increasing the out-of-pocket expenses working people and retirees are required to pay….

Medicare beneficiaries will be forced to pay a greater and greater share of the cost of coverage as excessive health care cost growth outpaces the new Republican limits on federal support for Americans’ earned health benefits. As with the other major rollbacks, the federal government would retreat, leaving beneficiaries to fend for themselves in the hopes that “market forces” will temper the growth of costs….

The major Republican plans also make substantial cuts to Medicaid, even though it currently pays for most nursing home and community-based long-term care for America’s seniors and, in conjunction with the Children’s Health Insurance Program, ensures that more than a third of America’s children can get the medical care they need….

Read the full letter.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on January 9, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell: I am a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, I worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  My writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  I am the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.

Is Your Workplace Wellness Plan Worth the Risk?

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Tina Bio picAs healthcare costs continue to soar, many employers are using wellness programs as a way to help curb their costs. In addition, employees who enroll in wellness programs also enjoy the program’s great health incentives and rewards, however, unbeknownst to them, the personal information collected may also be used for other undisclosed financial or discriminatory purposes.

This is important as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally protects employees from discrimination based on health status or disability. The ADA specifically prohibits employers from generally requiring mandatory health examinations and also prohibits the disclosure of an employee’s protected health information. However, these exams are allowed if they are part of a voluntary employee health program or if classified as a “business necessity.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or the federal agency that enforces these federal laws also recently raised concern about wellness programs

and published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) explaining how ADA applies to employer wellness programs that are also apart of group health plans. The NPRM explicitly prohibits employers from requiring employees to participate in a wellness program and also prevents the employer from disciplining or denying health coverage based on refusal. Although other federal laws prevent discrimination, the existing laws only apply to certain wellness programs under certain circumstances and as a result, some employers allow wellness program companies to share and use an employee’s information. Therefore, the proposed rule would not only help align federal laws to cover most wellness plans but would also require confidentiality and provide employees notice on how information is used and collected.

In a recent example, Houston city employees who participated in a wellness program were required to disclose their disease history, blood pressure, weight, drug and seat belt use to a wellness company. However, unknown to the employees, the contracted wellness company was also permitted to share the data with “third party vendors acting on [their] behalf.” Although the employees were permitted to refuse or opt out of the screening, they were subject to a $300 a year penalty for medical coverage. Therefore, the employees who “voluntarily” participated in the program in order to avoid the penalty, also unknowingly waived their privacy rights as the information shared could lead to discrimination by employers, lending institutions or even life insurance companies.

In another example, an employer required an employee to submit to medical testing and assessment in connection with a wellness program or “face dire consequences.” When the employee refused to comply with the mandatory program, the employer shifted responsibility for the payment of her entire health insurance premium and ultimately fired the employee shortly thereafter. This initiative unfortunately has many unintended consequences and as the Regional Attorney for the EEOC in Chicago noted, “having to choose between responding to medical exams and inquiries — which are not job-related — in a wellness program, on the one hand, or being fired, on the other hand, is no choice at all.”

While wellness programs have positive effects on employees and the workplace in general, these programs should not provide barriers to healthcare benefits or force penalties on those who cannot participate. Instead, these programs should also provide alternatives for employees who have disabilities and should not be implemented as a new way to determine insurance premium rates.

Another closely connected issue relates to privacy and the disclosure of employee data. Data companies such as Castlight Health, praised for their ability to help inform smarter decisions, are being hired by employers or wellness program companies to handle and process employees’ data. Whether it is being used, correctly or incorrectly, to identify which employees are likely to get sick, have surgery or get pregnant, these companies are using personal data and third party healthcare apps to monitor an employee’s personal information. However, even more concerning is how unregulated access to big data is.

Although some may think that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) applies, the privacy rule in HIPAA only applies or protects an individual’s identifiable health information held by either a covered entity or business associate. Therefore, depending on how the wellness program is administratively structured and whether the wellness program is offered as part of a group health plan, the identifiable health information may or may not be protected under HIPAA rules.

While some employers have structured wellness program incentives to comply with some federal laws, the exceptions in others have made achieving privacy while protecting civil rights difficult. Despite the EEOC’s best efforts to strike a balance between encouraging workplace wellness plans and compliance with federal laws, the “results appear to please no one, as the EEOC’s efforts to ensure only voluntary disclosure of private health information…drew sharp criticism from agency stakeholders.” In addition, despite legislation such as the “Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act” introduced by Representative John Kline to offer clarity on incentives consistent with the ACA final rule not violating the ADA, the effect of these promulgated rules remains unknown as poorly designed wellness programs continue to have unintended consequences.

Although wellness programs offer attractive health and wellness benefits, until the various issues with discrimination, data privacy, and uniformity with all federal laws are addressed, employees may still be at risk of discrimination.

Tina Jadhav is an attorney barred in Maryland. Tina is actively involved in health law as a member of the American Health Lawyers Association as well as the American Bar Association-Health Law section. Tina recently earned her Law and Government LL.M. degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2014 and her Juris Doctor degree from Florida Coastal School of Law. Tina also served as a Health Policy Fellow for U.S. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Legal Intern at Inova Health System Office of General Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General for Commonwealth of Virginia.

Retired Medical Technologist Gets a $600/Month Subsidy Thanks to New Healthcare Law

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

seiu-org-logoLarry Daniels, a 62-year-old medical technologist from Paintsville, Ky., was a few years away from qualifying for Medicare, so each month he paid $732 to keep his health insurance from his past employer through COBRA.

Read the previous blog post on Daniels from October HERE

It was hard coming up with that money every month, so Daniels was thrilled when he found out that he might be eligible for subsidies that would reduce the amount he paid for his plan from Kentucky’s health insurance exchange. “It’s nice not to worry about pinching pennies in order to be able to afford that monthly premium,” he said.

He ended up qualifying for a $600/month subsidy, which covers the cost of his platinum plan entirely. “And its better insurance than I had before,” said Daniels. “My deductible used to be $1,500, and now it’s only $500.”

Last fall, Daniels helped set up an information booth on the new healthcare law at the well-attended Kentucky Apple Festival. “It make me feel proud that I might have helped hundreds or even thousands of people at the festival sign up for health insurance,” he said.

For millions of American’s, the day has finally arrived when they can visit a doctor without worrying about the costs. And for many others like Daniels, their quality of life will be vastly improved by not having to pay outrageous premiums for the plans they desperately need.

“When I got that card in the mail, it was the greatest thing I’ve felt in a long time,” Daniels said. “I’ve always said that from the moment we get out of bed in the morning, our lives are deeply affected by politics. And this is one of the instances where I feel proud of both the state of Kentucky and the lawmakers who passed the healthcare law.”

This article was originally printed on SEIU on January 17, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: SEIU Communications

Philadelphia Falls One Vote Short of Sick Days for Over 180,000 Workers

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

 

dougfoote

With 12 votes needed, only 11 members of the Philadelphia City Council were willing to override Mayor Michael Nutter’s veto of the sick leave bill. For the second time in three years, corporate interests defeated a measure that would allow more than 180,000 Philadelphians to finally earn sick days.

“I’m very disappointed,” said city councilman Bill Greenlee, who tried but failed to get the 12 votes needed to override Mayor Nutter’s veto.  “I’m particularly disappointed for the 180,000 workers who could have had a benefit that other cities are providing.”

Instead of listening to the people of Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter sided with business interests: specifically the Philadelphia-based ALEC corporation Comcast, who spend more than $100,000 opposing sick leave in 2011 and is a big contributor to Mayor Nutter’s campaign.

“We’re not surprised the mayor vetoed this….he hasn’t exactly been a champion of workers,” said Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth McElroy. “The majority of the City Council and the majority of Philadelphians wanted this—it’s the right thing to do, and we’ll keep working on it.”

Comcast also contributed $3,000 to Councilman Brian O’Neill and $1,500 to Councilman Denny O’Brien, both who voted against the sick leave bill and refused to override Mayor Nutter’s veto. All of this despite the fact that 77% of Philadelphians favor the sick leave policy.

Not all hope is lost, however. Working America worked with a broad coalition to drive thousands of messages and phone calls to Mayor Nutter and members of the Philadelphia City Council. And while sick leave proposals move forward in Portland, Oregon, New York City and elsewhere, there will be more pressure on city officials as time goes on.

The fight isn’t over for bill sponsor Councilman Greenlee either:

“I still believe in and want to have earned paid sick leave in Philadelphia.  So we’ll see what the future holds on that,” he said.

This article was posted on the AFL-CIO on April 11, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the AuthorDoug Foote is the Social Media and Campaign Specialist at Working America. He joined Working America in 2011 after serving as New Media Director for the successful 2010 reelection campaign of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).

How the Poultry Industry is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Michelle ChenWalk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

“I shouldn’t say it’s work-related. If I say my pain comes from something I did at work, then I will be laid off without pay and three days later get fired. So, when I go to the nurse I tell her that I hurt my hands at home.”

In towns that lack decent job opportunities outside of the poultry industry, these workers face an oppressive workplace culture that undermines not only their health but their dignity. Workers reported “being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”

Conditions may soon worsen, the SPLC notes, because the Department of Agriculture is seeking to alter regulations to allow even faster line speeds. That means the already frenzied pace of production–whipping bird carcasses into hermetically sealed flesh pellets in a matter of seconds–might speed up even more under a controversial set of proposed changes to plant inspection protocols.

The planned reforms have been criticized as counterproductive because they transfer control of inspections from federal inspectors to company employees. The revamped inspection process would, according to critics, both give corporations more power to regulate their own henhouse while accelerating the already frighteningly hectic pace of production. Some USDA inspectors have criticized the proposal, warning that with the combination of sped-up lines and company-controlled oversight, these industry-backed efforts to “modernize” the production chain may create more safety risks. So safety standards for both consumers and workers might be further weakened. (Industry representatives dispute the SPLC’s research, insisting that the proposal would not harm safety standards.)

Underlying labor injustices have exacerbated the immediate workplace hazards. The mostly black and Latino workforce, which includes many documented and undocumented immigrants, generally have little recourse against abusive employers. Many saw their pay arbitrarily cut by deductions for housing expenses and other fees. Meanwhile, for female workers, sexual harassment was a commonly reported issue. Harsh immigration enforcement laws, which were recently tightened by state legislation that seeks to further criminalize undocumented Latino workers, has made them even more economically insecure and socially marginalized.

One structural problem making poultry workers especially vulnerable, the researchers argue, is that despite some general occupational safety guidelines for poultry plants, OSHA “has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers,” which constrains workers’ ability to take legal action against unsafe working conditions or unfair treatment.

The report’s author, SPLC advocate Tom Fritzsche, says that while OSHA can enforce general workplace protections, regulatory gaps nonetheless enable the industry to structure its labor system around loophole-ridden standards for food production, which are not focused on worker safety. “This specific [line speed] rule from USDA is not really intended originally as a worker protection standard… The speed that they currently run at is based more on whether the inspectors can see the chickens, rather than how the workers can do the work safely,” he says. As a result of these regulatory lapses, “We’ve kind of ended up in a world where this is the only limit on speeds.”

Until state and federal regulators start prioritizing workers’ labor rights and health needs, the unsafe work environment, Fritzsche adds, “ultimately comes from the fact that the whole industry is just operating in this kind of race to produce as many chickens as they can in as little amount of time as they can. And so it affects every aspect of the worker’s job.”

But all those bitter hardships are stowed far away from the millions of super-clean, ultra-cheap drumsticks that will end up on American dinner tables tonight. Countless consumers will enjoy their meals without any conception of how perfectly the poultry industry masks the true price of its brutal efficiency.

This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 21, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

New England Grocery Unions Face Grueling Obamacare Test (Update)

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Bruce VailUPDATE: UFCW union leaders in New England announced a tentative settlement with Stop & Shop March on 4, following marathon negotiating sessions over the previous few day. Details of the settlement are being withheld pending formal presentation of the new contract to union members for a ratification vote. According to the union’s special Stop & Shop web site, the union will announce a date for the ratification vote in a matter of days. 

Union leaders and grocery chain managers are back at the negotiating table in New England today in a bitter and messy attempt to adapt existing health insurance programs to the new realities of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare. The negotiators—from the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and the Stop & Shop grocery chain—face a March 3 deadline that could provoke a large scale strike or lockout affecting 40,000 workers.

Standing in the way of an agreement at this point are certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act set to go into effect in 2014, says Rick Charette, president of UFCW Local 1445, based in Dedham, Mass. Charette—who leads a coalition of five UFCW locals representing grocery workers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire—says the problems appear intractable, and negotiators are desperate to find a solution.

“I’ve been around labor contract negotiations for 40 years and this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” Charette said in an interview this week with Working In These Times. “It’s a nightmare” that has been created not by corporate pressure to cut labor costs, but by the fumbling bureaucratic requirements of federal health law, he says.

Stop & Shop faces increased health insurance costs as high as $250 million over three years should all 40,000 UFCW workers continue receiving the same health care insurance benefits as under the current contract (which expired Feb. 17 but has been extended for two weeks), according to Charette. The increased costs are mostly created, he explains, when the Obamacare requirement that medical benefit caps be eliminated prompts insurance companies to raise rates to cover the greater costs.

“What is just crazy about this is that Stop & Shop is one of the few food retailers out there that has had good insurance for part-timers—most grocery companies don’t provide anything at all,” says Charette. “It punishes the companies that are trying [to do] the right thing.”

Stop & Shop’s proposed solution to the problem has been to eliminate coverage for thousands of part-time workers, but UFCW is not ready to agree to that, Charette says. “The theory is that part-timers are, by definition, low-income workers, and therefore they will qualify for government subsidies for individual health insurance under Obamacare. Well, that’s a nice theory, but what does that mean in practice for our members?” he asks. “Nobody seems to know.”

“When we backed Obamacare, we were told that if we had good health insurance and wanted to keep it, we could,” Charette adds. “What happened to that?”

The dilemma for the Stop & Shop worker is indeed a very real and vey difficult one, according to Ken Jacobs, chairman of the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center. The same pressures on the low-income, part-time workers in New England are being felt around the country, he says, and the issue will certainly rise in public prominence over the next year, as the 2014 deadline for elimination of caps approaches.

“This is sort a special problem that applies to part-timers who meet the government definition of low-income,” Jacobs says. “The unions that are going to feel it the most are UNITE HERE and UFCW, and some parts of SEIU,” he predicts. Since there is no Obamacare requirement that many part-timers be covered by employer-based insurance plans, many companies will take the path of least resistance and push these workers out into government-subsidized programs for the working poor.

“The issue of health coverage for workers in the food retailing industry has not been created by Obamacare—it has been at the very center of [grocery industry] labor relations for years,” he notes. The 2003 Southern California grocery strike—the largest of its kind in U.S. history—had its origins in health care insurance issues. “And look what happened there,” Jacobs says. “It was a huge strike and the workers lost a lot of their health care benefits.”

“At the end of the day, it may be better for everyone concerned” to eliminate employer-based coverage for most of these low-income grocery workers, says Jacobs. “If the cost is so onerous that the employer cannot compete, then subsidized individual insurance seems to be a logical alternative.”

Any resolution of the New England Stop & Shop insurance issue could set a national precedent in the grocery chain sector, adds Jacobs. Stop & Shop’s parent company is the Dutch-based international retailer Ahold, which owns hundreds of other stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Any settlement in New England could create a model for those other areas, he says, and a company-wide Ahold solution will, in turn, have a knock-on effect for other gigantic chains like Safeway, Kroger and Supervalu.

The potential national impact of the outcome of the negotiation has created intense pressure this week as the New England talks between UFCW and Stop & Shop enter a decisive phase.

Charette tells Working In These Times that the five union locals are planning on mass meetings across the region for this coming weekend. If a settlement is in hand, union leaders will ask for a ratification vote. Otherwise, they will ask for a strike authorization vote and prepare for a huge confrontation. The union leader confessed it was impossible to predict the outcome.

This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 1, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Opposition to paid sick leave costs Christine Quinn some high-profile support

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Laura ClawsonNew York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s refusal to allow a paid sick leave bill to come to a vote—though it has the support of a strong majority of the city council—resurfaced in the news this week when feminist icon Gloria Steinem said she would withdraw her support from Quinn if Quinn continues to block the bill.

“Making life fairer for all women seems more important than breaking a barrier for one woman,” Ms. Steinem said, adding that the bill would ensure that working mothers could better take care of sick children without fear of losing their jobs.

While it’s unlikely that Gloria Steinem’s endorsement or lack thereof is going to move many votes, it underscores a potential weakness for Quinn: She’s getting more credit as a progressive candidate than her positions would merit, in part because, as Steinem points out, she would be the first woman elected mayor of New York City. And she’s a married lesbian to boot. Drawing attention to the disconnect between how her individual role is perceived and the policies she embraces may not be super helpful among voters, though since the policies are geared to get her business support, it may be a worthwhile tradeoff as far as she’s concerned.

Quinn continues to block the vote while claiming that paid sick leave is “a worthy and admirable goal, one I would like to make available for all.” Her reasoning, of course, is the standard line pushed by crappy employers that it would cost jobs. However, job creation did not suffer in San Francisco following the implementation of that city’s paid sick leave law in 2007. And paid sick leave continues to be a public health issue; as Katie J.M. Baker points out, “a recent CDC study identified infected food workers as a source of between 53 and 82% of norovirus outbreaks.”

The arguments against paid sick leave just don’t hold up. Quinn is blocking a bill that would benefit not just the more than 1.5 million New Yorkers who currently lack paid sick leave, but has widespread public support and would save tens of millions of dollars in health care costs each year, resulting from fewer emergency room visits. It’s costing her high-profile support in her mayoral run, and it should cost her more.

This post was originally posted on the Daily Kos on February 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Krugman on ‘Sequester of Fools’

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Image: Mike HallPaul Krugman has a pretty straightforward plan to deal with the sequester that’s due to hit March 1. The New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist says, “The right policy would be to forget about the whole thing.”

He bases his proposal on what Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen said in her keynote address to the Trans-Atlantic Agenda for Shared Prosperity conference at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Fiscal austerity, such as the sequester and the latest doomsday alert from the Bowles-Simpson duo, is the enemy of real economic recovery. Writes Krugman:

America doesn’t face a deficit crisis, nor will it face such a crisis anytime soon. Meanwhile, we have a weak economy that is recovering far too slowly from the recession that began in 2007. And, as Janet Yellen, the vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, recently emphasized, one main reason for the sluggish recovery is that government spending has been far weaker in this business cycle than in the past. We should be spending more, not less, until we’re close to full employment; the sequester is exactly what the doctor didn’t order.

Read his full column, including his take on Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, “the famous fomenters of fiscal fear.”

The arbitrary, across-the-board sequestration cuts in everything from mental health services to public safety kick in next Friday, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Republican lawmakers say they are willing to toss 750,000 people out of work and cut vital lifeline government services to ring massive concessions in cuts from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Working families are calling on their elected representatives to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from benefits cuts, repeal the sequester and make sure corporations and the wealthiest 2% pay their fair share through closing tax loopholes.

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on 2/22/2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

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