San Diego Union Tribune

This past weekend, thousands of workers from San Luis Obispo to San Diego voted to give their union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the authority to call for a strike against several large grocery chains in Southern California. As the threat of a strike and lockout similar to the one in 2003 edges closer to reality, it’s worth taking a look at the issue at the heart of the dispute – an issue that affects all Americans one way or another: the decline in job-based health care coverage.

During the 2003 strike, which lasted more than four months, grocery industry owners pointed to skyrocketing health care costs, and argued it was reasonable to ask their employees to share the cost. But the grocers’ demands had severe and disconcerting results for employee health coverage and health care.

Consider the results of a study of grocery worker health care benefits conducted by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

Before the 2003 strike, 94 percent of Southern California’s UFCW workers had health coverage on the job. That number has since plummeted to 54 percent, according to the study.

For workers hired under the new contract, health care waiting periods increased from four months to a year for individual coverage, 18 months for courtesy clerks and 30 months for family coverage. New workers were required to pay 20 percent of the premium cost, an amount few if any could afford, judging by the results of the UC Berkeley study.

Of the grocery workers hired since April 2004, only 7 percent are covered through their employer. Half are uninsured, and the rest are covered through a parent or spouse’s employer or receive government aid. There are now 20,000 fewer children covered by grocery store health insurance plans.

The UC Berkeley study also found that 20 percent of the workers hired under the new contract reported that they skipped needed doctor visits because of the cost.

At a hearing before the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Los Angeles Grocery Industry and Community Health in January, one grocery worker testified he had cancer but had to rely on government programs to pay his bills because he was not covered by his employer. Another testified that he needs medical care but would have to wait 11 months to see a doctor after his insurance kicks in. Suffice to say, these workers cannot afford private insurance.

This steep and sudden drop in job-based health coverage among grocery workers in Southern California over the last three years is emblematic of what is happening with job-based health care in general in California and the United States, but just at a speedier pace. And as bad as the health care situation of the Southern California grocery workers is, their options are still better than those of Wal-Mart workers. Between 2001 and 2006, the proportion of Californians with job-based coverage fell by 5 percent.

Clearly, there are lessons to be learned. When employers don’t provide health care coverage, the costs are shifted to the workers and their families, to other employers and to taxpayers. Workers go into debt to pay their health care bills. Not surprisingly, health care debt is the primary cause of private bankruptcy in the country.

Employers who do provide coverage pick up the cost through coverage of family members who work at grocery stores. Finally, costs are shifted to taxpayers through increased enrollment in public programs and reliance on county health care systems.

While we await the outcome of the contract negotiations between the grocery workers and their employers – Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons – we must also realize that America’s health care crisis cannot be solved at the bargaining table alone. It requires policy solutions at the state and national levels.

The lessons from the grocery industry show the vital importance of meaningful standards for employers on health spending, so that when companies pare down benefits, rivals are not forced to follow suit to remain competitive. Without such reform, more and more families will face a fate similar to that of the Southern California grocery workers, who are forced to make unacceptable choices between paying their bills and taking care of their health.