On top of all the obscure extra fees that get heaped onto your already overpriced plane ticket, you might be getting an unexpected discount—a single nickel saved on every airfare. That’s how much extra it would theoretically cost to provide a decent healthcare plan to thousands of airline catering workers. An extra five cents a ticket, according to their union, could ensure that the person who prepares your reheated pasta tray doesn’t sneeze on your butter pats because she can’t afford to see a doctor.
Hundreds of catering workers represented by UNITE HERE marched in Washington, DC yesterday to demand access to decent health insurance that will help them stay healthy, do their job safely, and avoid falling further into poverty. Representing some 12,000 airline catering workers with major contractors like Gate Gourmet and Sky Chefs, the union is calling on the big airlines to build into their supply chain the cost of decent healthcare, which they calculate as roughly five cents per ticket, to be passed down to workers to offset insurance costs.
According to a national survey of airline catering workers, over 40 percent of catering service workers—who handle meal preparation, processing and logistics at airports across the country—earn less than $10.10 per hour. That’s well below a living wage in many of the cities where major airports are located (and less than the minimum wage repeatedly proposed by the Obama administration to bring the base wage closer to 1960s levels). According to UNITE HERE, extremely low wages leave workers “unable to pay the premiums of so-called ‘minimum value plans,’ [those complying with federal mandates] but ineligible to purchase more affordable options from health care exchanges.”
Despite the introduction of Obamacare, precarious airline catering workers have fallen into an insurance black hole. Though they are unionized, many earn just above the threshold to qualify for a federal subsidy, so they may end up getting penalized for being unable to afford the prohibitive cost of a $120-a-month plan with a deductible that effectively prices them out of needed services.
Los Angeles-based food service worker Manuel Valdovinos earns just enough to afford care this year, but says he now owes a $300 federal fine because he couldn’t afford to buy insurance last year. “I had to get a second job just to cover the basic expenses,” he tells The Nation. “And the IRS feels that I owe them money, for not being able to afford it [last year]….What my second job is giving me, I’m basically giving it away in healthcare.”
The workers’ dilemma reflects an ongoing controversy over companies seeking to circumvent Obamacare’s mandate for employer-sponsored health coverage, by pushing workers onto the exchanges. Despite regulatory checks against “dumping” sick workers onto exchanges, many low-income workers may get stuck with inadequate coverage and unaffordable premiums.