32BJ SEIU says providing a way for airport workers to get quality, affordable health insurance is the union’s 2020 legislative priority
TRENTON, N.J. — Yvette Stevens, a baggage claim attendant at Newark Liberty International Airport, has been calling on lawmakers to act on a crisis at one of the nation’s busiest transit hubs: workers’ access to health insurance. She shares the same predicament that thousands of her coworkers face. Going to the doctor means medical debt, and skipping treatments or tests has become the norm.
Stevens, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and osteoporosis, needs healthcare to survive. The health insurance her employer offers is beyond her means and she no longer qualifies for Medicare or Medicaid. So she has gone without treatments and the costs of treating her chronic conditions have been piling up.
“I live in total uncertainty,” said Yvette Stevens. “My pharmacist told me my insurance was no longer valid but I need expensive medications and monthly shots to keep my conditions in check. I’ve had to ration my supply, against my doctor’s orders.”
Stevens traveled to Trenton on Monday with dozens of fellow workers at Newark Airport to tell lawmakers to address the challenges that workers like them face trying to acquire the quality, affordable health insurance they desperately need while working in service jobs where they have a high degree of interaction with the public.
The workers, who perform vital functions to help some of our most vulnerable family members as they travel, say they deserve the important protections that access to health care can provide.
Kevin Brown, SEIU 32BJ Vice President and New Jersey State Director, said “this is an urgent issue because so many thousands of workers are in limbo trying to come up with a healthcare solution.” He added that four out of ten Americans say they couldn’t pay for a bill of $400 or more if they had an unexpected medical expense, and the same goes for workers in airports.
That is why the workers and the representatives from 32BJ traveled to Trenton to ask lawmakers to vote to pass the landmark Healthy Terminals Act, to provide a benefits supplement to their compensation, which 10,000 Newark Airport workers could use to acquire this health insurance.
The legislation, sponsored by Senator Loretta Weinberg as S989 in the Senate, and sponsored by Assemblymember Annette Quijano, would apply to workers at Newark Liberty International Airport. Companion legislation in New York State would cover workers at John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport.
“An overwhelming number of workers our very own airport are suffering, both in pain and in medical debt,” Weinberg said. “The New Jersey Healthy Terminals Act will solve problems for thousands and thousands of workers who are on the frontlines servicing passengers. Workers are forced to choose between going to the doctor and keeping a roof over their heads. That’s not right.”
Workers shared with legislators personal stories of crushing debt and struggles to find quality, affordable health insurance in New York.
Teresa Wright, a baggage agent at Newark Airport, says she prays for the day when she can treat her on-the-job injury without worrying how to pay the rent.
“I was working on a carousel that had become overloaded with baggage because we didn’t have enough staff that day,” Wright said. “I asked the supervisor for more help but he ignored me, and in the meantime I continued pulling baggage off of the carousel as fast as I could. Eventually, the passengers started to help me.
But the next day, Wright was on crutches. “I couldn’t afford to get the treatments that I needed for it and the accident set me way back– both with my health and financially.”
Bill sponsors discussed how the proposed law would address the health insurance challenges workers described.
“Workers simply cannot afford the enormous costs of their employer’s medical insurance plans,” said Weinberg. “The Healthy Terminals Act would give workers the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty and get the treatments that so many desperately need. Their health would impact every traveler in New Jersey and make it a safer place for everyone passing through or coming to stay.
“Just days ago, the CDC announced screenings for the mysterious and dangerous coronavirus, yet workers struggle to obtain meaningful healthcare,” added Weinberg. “That’s not right. We need to pass this legislation to provide workers with the health insurance they deserve.”
The bill would establish an employer-paid benefits supplement that has already been proven effective with the Service Contract Act, which currently provides $4.54, with small annual increases. Workers could then use this $4.54 for health insurance or employees working under collectively bargained contracts could negotiate to use this supplement to provide affordable, quality health insurance directly.
With 175,000 members in 11 states, including 9,000 airport workers in New Jersey and New York, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country