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Fast-food Workers Struggle to Pay for Health Insurance and Other Basics


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Low-wage employees in Durham protesting Thursday for a $15 minimum wage said one of their biggest concerns is lack of access to health care coverage.

By Hyun Namkoong

The Feb. 15 deadline to sign up for health insurance coverage on the federal Healthcare.gov website is quickly approaching, and low-wage workers like DeAngelo Morales and Isaac McQueen are stuck between a rock and hard place.

McQueen, 35, a father of two, has worked at Domino’s Pizza for 10 years as a pizza maker. He says he doesn’t qualify for subsidies offered under the Affordable Care Act. He also doesn’t qualify for Medicaid after North Carolina declined to expand the program to adults who make more than 49 percent of the federal poverty level, which works out to $9,697 a year for a family of three.

Employees of the Bojangles gathered in front of their workplace to protest for higher wages and collective bargaining rights. Pictured from left, Sherice Moss, Sherri Lilly, Nyrisha Satterwhite, Shekevia Bernett, , Cassie Parker and Brian Hayes.

Employees of Bojangles on Hillsborough Street in Durham gathered in front of their workplace to protest for higher wages and collective bargaining rights. Pictured, from left to right, are Sherice Moss, Sherri Lilly, Nyrisha Satterwhite, Shekevia Bernett, Cassie Parker and Brian Hayes. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

“I [make] too much money,” he said with an ironic laugh.

McQueen said there was a plan on the federal health insurance exchange that cost $80 a month, but he couldn’t afford it.

Instead, his health insurance plan is based on hope and faith.

“[I’m just] hoping and praying to God I don’t get sick, because I can’t afford any substantial medical bills,” he said.

Can’t afford insurance

The two men were part of a protest group of about 60 people gathered early Thursday morning in front of a Bojangles’ and McDonald’s on Hillsborough Road in Durham chanting in support of a $15 minimum wage and union rights.

The protest was part of a national campaign of fast-food employees who went on strike in 190 cities across the country on Thursday – including Greenville and Greensboro – to demand better wages and collective bargaining rights.

The “Fight for $15” campaign started two years ago when fast-food employees walked out of restaurants in New York City. Many low-wage workers – including airport workers, home health care aides and employees of gas stations and convenience stores – have since joined the movement.

DeAngelo Morales, has two jobs, three children and no health insurance.

DeAngelo Morales has two jobs, three children and no health insurance. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Morales, 25, stood in the early-morning cold to show his support. He has two jobs in the fast-food industry, three children and no health insurance. He says that without health insurance, his only option when he needs medical attention is to go to the emergency room.

“I just got a $1,300 hospital bill because I was in the hospital for two days,” Morales said. “If I pay for health insurance, I lose out on a place to lay my head.”

He’s is not alone. According to the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, the cost of health insurance negatively impacts Americans’ ability to access health care services, leading to poorer health outcomes.

In 2011, only about 13 percent of fast-food workers had health care benefits through their employer, compared to 59 percent of the overall workforce that received employer-sponsored benefits, according to a 2013 study done at the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center.

Meanwhile, workers who serve food and beverages have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average because of the safety hazards often found in restaurants, such as hot ovens and slippery floors, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Morales and McQueen both said they didn’t receive coverage from their employers.

Got Medicaid, but no electricity

While some fast-food workers qualify for Medicaid because they meet the monthly income limits set by the state, they say they still struggle to pay for basic needs such as electricity or housing.

“You can’t survive off $7.25 with everything going up in the economy,” said Shawnda Smith, a 23-year-old mother of two boys and an employee at Burger King.

An increase in the minimum wage would help working women like Smith keep up with rising costs caused by inflation and reduce employment turnover and training costs for businesses, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Smith says that she and her children are on Medicaid, but that the minimum wage isn’t enough to pay for all of her children’s basic needs.

Today’s minimum wage would have to be almost $11 an hour to be equal to the minimum wage’s purchasing power in the late 1960s, according to the Department of Labor.

“I have years of experience and I still don’t get $8 [an hour],” Smith said. “Some people get paid off their experience. That doesn’t happen in the fast-food world.”

The University of California, Berkeley study also found It’s not uncommon for fast-food workers like Morales to work less than 40 hours a week, even with two jobs. The study also shows a lack of full-time jobs: Only 28 percent of workers in the fast-food industry work full time, compared to 75 percent of workers overall.

Research shows  underemployment not only results in a smaller paycheck but can also lead to poor mental and physical health outcomes. And people who are underemployed report increased levels of depression, alcohol use and chronic disease.

“I don’t mind standing out here in the cold for hours as long as we can support the cause and get it up to $15 an hour for everybody,” Smith said.

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