Heart failure is what landed Fort Lauderdale Airport wheelchair attendant Sandra Smith in the hospital three years ago. In an alarming brush with death, she slipped into a seven-day coma. It was in that single week that her overnights and treatments racked up thousands of dollars in hospital bills. Unable to afford her employer's health insurance on her salary, Smith woke up from her coma to find that she had not been covered by
"When they told me after how much I owed, I was so shocked. I had to be consoled, and then ended up back in the hospital a week later because it put a real strain on me."
As of today, Smith still reportedly owes over $100,000 in hospital bills. But the airport worker makes $13.98 an hour, so there's little hope she'll ever pay off that debt.
Her story is a raw, transparent look at the struggles Broward airport workers endure when it comes to affording basic health insurance on low wages. On December 11, 2018, county commissioners voted to increase the Living Wage Ordinance from $12.38 to $13.27 for subcontracted employees that work at county facilities. But unions and airport workers have not been able to wholeheartedly celebrate the fruits of their labor just yet. Although a positive outcome came about in the fight to raise workers' pay, a topic for continued discussion remained undecided: raising the healthcare differential. Otherwise billed as the sum that's given for an employee to buy their own health insurance, the current rate is $1.60 per hour.
The list of unions representing subcontracted airport employees at the commission meetings in the past year includes 32BJ SEIU. The organization continues to propel the local effort for higher minimum wages and an increased healthcare differential. They're pushing for the $1.60 rate to be more than doubled to $3.44 an hour for workers, a number they calculated from the total premium of an average employer plan in Florida added to an assumed 7% annual premium increase.
Sara Rothstein is the Director of 32BJ's Health Fund. She says that what the union wants out of this healthcare funding push is two-fold. "One, is for Broward County to adopt the healthcare differential at $3.44 an hour by 2021. And then the union will negotiate with [our union members'] employers to use the $3.44 an hour to ensure employees' union members go through our health care fund." The designer of the 32BJ insurance plan, Rothstein cross-compares things like premiums, out of pocket costs and annual deductibles when calculating coverage cost in Florida against Broward's health care differential.
32BJ communications representative Ana Tinsly criticized the delayed vote, and the positions asserted by commissioners who spoke out against raising the differential immediately. "A lot of county commissioners have been saying stuff like, 'Well, we think workers need to pay their own share, it shouldn’t just be the company paying all the money.'" Tinsly goes on to name one county official in particular. "I think what Commissioner Geller doesn’t understand is that for people who are making $13 dollars an hour, a $30 dollar co-pay to go to the doctor is a lot of money."
Broward County Commissioner and former Florida State Senator Steve Geller told New Times that there's more to the narrative. He stresses the $0.89 increase to the base living wage for subcontracted county employees that was approved a month
"If we're now telling them that instead of $13 an hour including benefits and healthcare that now they have to pay him $16 an hour and we've already agreed that we're only paying them, say, $500,000, they're going to sue us and they should sue us," he asserts.
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The commissioner is of the opinion that a tentative consensus in principle was wrought at the latest January meeting, where unions presented to the commission their proposals on behalf of workers and pitched their individual union health insurance plans for the county to consider. Increasing the health plan to $3.44 to cover a higher healthcare differential is a proposal that eventually garnered a majority of commissioners' support, says Geller, but with the stipulation that it would be applied to all contracts in 2021. It also wouldn't allow for workers to forgo investing in health insurance in favor of capitalizing on a slightly higher wage.
"We couldn't take a vote on it [at the latest meeting]. But I thought that sounded like a reasonable compromise that we could live with, in what we were concerned about. And this is one of the reasons that we don't want the opt-out. We want to make sure that people take the money and buy health insurance." Geller explains that his background as an attorney for 35 years makes him view the healthcare differential scenario differently. "My biggest concern was breaking existing contracts," he says, illustrating how the two-year plan would mean most current contracts will have ended. "Now, everybody will know that as of January 1st, 2021, this is how much you're going to have to pay."
A county meeting is scheduled for January 29 with the outstanding vote on the healthcare differential expected on the agenda. The commissioner expects a positive vote to take place, and to begin rolling out a health plan equal to $3.44 in 2021, but also emphasizes that at the last meeting not all officials spoke up about their opinion on the discussion.
Even if the upcoming vote has a favorable outcome, two years is a ways away for people like Sandra Smith, who are forced to make do with the existing system. But what's to come of the wheelchair attendant paying off upwards of $100,000? She'll likely remain saddled with debt under a mountain of medical bills, a symbolic casualty in an industry where affordable healthcare is a luxury. "I used to sleep in the airport. It's just recently that I got an apartment. I live paycheck [to] paycheck," says Smith. "I'll never be ashamed to put my story out there because I need people to know. I share my story because I have to fight for a better life — for myself and for everyone."