Monday, December 9, 2013

#ISupportTheStrike Or Down With The McBurglars!

Last weeks fast food worker strike is another link in a chain that I hope will be used to hang poverty wages and abusive work situations in the public square. I stand in solidarity with those workers not only as a sympathizer, but also as a former fast food worker myself. In this short entry I would like to draw attention to three different experiences that I went through not only as a former employee, but also as the child of a former employee of the industry. My thesis is that these workers deserve their demands because everyday they suffer the effects of poverty wages, lack of benefits/opportunity, and daily disrespect.

I grew up as the only child of a single mother who worked 2-3 fast food jobs every day on minimum wage for more than a decade. During that time the federal minimum wage changed a few times, but my mother and I were never even close to being able to lift ourselves out of poverty. It kills me to listen to the talking heads on TV talk about how unfair it would be to pay workers a living wage. I wonder if they have ever had to stand in a bread line, wait in a dark room at a church for food, or live in a motel that is infamous for housing crackheads. Such was the life for my mother and me for years living on minimum fast food wages. And keep in mind she didn't work just one fast food job… she worked several.

The American dream is supposedly based on the idea that if someone works hard then they can have access to opportunities like an education and/or moving up the proverbial ladder. When someone is not even making enough money to feed and clothe themselves or keep a roof over their head, how can they be expected to pay exorbitant tuition costs? Additionally, what happens when a fast food worker gets sick? The vast majority of mega munch corporations do not provide health insurance or sick days, so when a worker gets sick their financial straights are made even more dire. What about moving up the ladder? For the sake of the illustration let's say that there are an average of 10 employees per fast food restaurant including management. Let's also say that the manager of McDonalds location X has been there for ten years and gets promoted to district manager. Only one of those other nine people is going to get a chance at the promotion and that's assuming the chain doesn't hire from outside. Are those other nine employees—who, again, cannot afford an education or healthcare—going to be able to wait another decade for an opportunity? Even if they do… what about the other seven?

The skeptic may say, "Why don't they get another job?" I would point you again to my mother as an example. She worked from 6:30AM-2PM at her first job before picking me up from school. Then she quickly made me dinner before going to her night job. When did my mother have time to look for another job? "How about her day off?” that same person may ask. Well, for one she needed some sleep. Secondly, due to the poverty wages she was receiving, she also had to spend time in bread lines and church drives so we had enough food and clothes. Poverty wages produce a vicious circle of dependency that keeps people tired, under the poverty line, and without opportunity.

While lack of adequate wages and opportunity are debilitating, very few things are as demoralizing as the disrespect that fast food workers receive only a daily basis. I have firsthand knowledge and have watched my mother suffer the consequences of this as well. Given the fact that fast food work is low wage and no benefit there seems to have developed a social stigma against it. How many of us have stood in line and watched first world privileged people huff and puff because they didn't get their burger in 30 seconds? How many times have you seen a cashier being yelled at because one of the cooks forgot the no pickles request? The aggressors in these situations don't seem to have considered that maybe these people are tired. Maybe like my mom this is their second job that day. Maybe their child is sick at home alone because both their parents had to go to work so they could have the money to pay rent. Maybe their marriage is on the rocks because they don't have enough money for school clothes and their diabetes medicine. I don't think people realize the depths of depravity that people are forced to live in because they are trying to support families on $7.25/hr.

Fast food CEOs are saying that if they grant their employees $15/hr, then they will have to raise prices. Why can't they give some of their salaries? In 2012, James Skinner, the CEO of McDonalds, made over $27M.[1] Why can't they downsize the advertisement budget? Billions of dollars a year seems a bit exorbitant.[2] Why can't they slow down their global expansion?[3] How much is enough?

I could go on for days describing my personal knowledge of how poverty wages, lack of opportunity, and daily disrespect can destroy families and stress people into sickness, but my goal is not to make you cry. I simply want you to consider the plight of millions of people who live in poverty so that large mega corporations can pay their executives millions of dollars a year, spend billions of advertising, and buy corporate jets. There are human souls crying out for justice behind those tacky corporate visors. The only thing I would ask of you is to consider my story, my mother's story, and the story of countless millions of oppressed individuals who are kept under the boot heel of corporate greed so you can buy a burger for a dollar and get it in under two minutes. Please support these workers and- for the love of god- please tell them you appreciate them once and a while. You might be surprised how far those two small acts of kindness can go.

My name is Larry Swetman and #ISupportTheStrike.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Me & Obama(care) Or What The Hell Is A Deductible?

I am one of the privileged few who has been able to log on to Healthcare.Gov and complete the process. I even chose a plan. I am writing this short entry in the hopes that anyone considering signing up for Obamacare can have an honest evaluation of the process and not have to depend on what the politicians and talking heads say about it.

I began with the infamous website. The design of the website was encouraging. It wasn't stiff or overtly bureaucratic as one might expect a government portal to be. The colors were bright, the images crisp and modern, and the introductory video helpful in terms of defining what I could expect from the “marketplace” experience. The video- also draped in sleek modern graphics- told me that I could expect to compare different plans in the virtual marketplace; find "clear information” about prices/benefits; and search for definitions of what medical words like premiums, deductibles, or co-pays meant. Every plan- a sweet soothing voice told me- would offer “comprehensive benefits” and no one could be turned down. It took me about two hours from sign up to enrollment.

When I arrived at the launch page I immediately set up an account. The information required was pretty basic and streamlined. Name, address, phone number, etc. So far, so good. 

In terms of who qualifies? I noticed that there were specific groups that were purposefully left out, such as undocumented immigrants and incarcerated individuals. I will not make a judgment of these barriers here, but I do feel it necessary to point out that this program was not designed for all Americans.

Once I arrived at the privacy statement I slowed down a bit to read the fine print. Part of the terms and conditions state that if any of the information I entered, such as income or residency, did not match the information in the Heatlchare.Gov database[1] then I would have to provide "proof" of the changes. This proof could include information from inaccessible bureaucratic labyrinths like the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, and Department of Homeland Security, among several others. I worry about the accessibility of such information for a large cross section of the population who aren’t used to navigating government red tape. Even my "Eligibility Notice"-- which is a sort of what’s next kind of jawn—doesn’t make it clear how to obtain the information.

After entering my personal information the website asked me whether I wanted to enter my income to apply for a tax credit. I find this question to be of supreme importance for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was an option. Unless I am mistaken the Affordable Healthcare Act was designed so that folks who have typically not been able to afford or have access to health insurance can. Why is it an option? What if I had missed the significance of the question and pushed "no”? Then none of my potential plans would have included the subsidy that I qualified for and I consequently would not have known that the price I was quoted could have been significantly cheaper. Secondly, the language of the site offered me a "tax credit toward my monthly premiums". Thankfully, I understand what tax credits and premiums are, but I do worry about the accessibility of such language to people who aren’t as familiar with what they mean.

The tax credit itself turned out to be the most important part of the process for me. I entered my expected income for the year and was provided with an amount: $2,724. That amount was based on my income and basically covered the cost of my monthly premium for a year because I live under the poverty line.

Then I was presented with options for how I would like to receive that tax credit. Basically, I could either put all or part of the $227/mo. subsidy toward my monthly premiums or receive it all in one lump sum with my federal tax refund. The website did offer very helpful color-coded graphics to help understand these options as well.

I was a little disappointed that I had to choose how to use my tax credits before I saw the actual plans. I chose the use all of it every month option so when I was presented with my options in the marketplace section my monthly premiums were $227 less.

When I arrived at the marketplace itself I was offered a few different options for the types of plans I wanted: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. They basically varied in deductibles, out of pocket maximums, co-pays, etc. I chose silver because I wanted low premiums (monthly fees) and cheap doctor visits.

When I went to choose my plan the confusion began. I think the goals of the website were met in terms of presenting my range of options in plans, providers, and costs, but it did not help explain what these costs were. My monthly costs and co-payments were clear, but I still don't quite understand what a deductible is or when I have to pay an out of pocket maximum.

I tried to use the "live chat" option as well. I was quickly connected to a representative, but it did not prove very helpful for me. I asked a lot of the same questions that I have presented here: What is the difference between a deductible and an out of pocket maximum? What am I going to be billed for? The reps’ answers sounded more like scripted responses when I could’ve more used a more free flowing dialogue. I finally searched the website for the definition of a lot of these terms, but again they sounded more like entries in an textbook for medical billing than a helpful one-stop-shop explanation of healthcare costs. Again, I imagine that this could get especially difficult for those not familiar with navigating the Internet or making sense of medical terms.

In the end I chose a plan that would provide me with $5 doctor visits, $25 emergency room visits, $4 generic prescription, $10 x-rays, $0 deductible (whatever the hell that means), and a $2,250 out of pocket maximum (see: Previous Parenthesis) for $0.13/mo. thanks to the $227/mo. subsidy/tax credit for which I qualified. My Eligibility Notice said that I am still required to send proof of my income to the Health Insurance Marketplace before I can be approved. It's not a done deal yet, but I am hopeful.

Overall, I am satisfied with my experience of Obamacare and Healthcare.Gov, but I am not sure that it quite meets its stated goals. I am a young College-educated person who is familiar with the Internet, kind of knows some health insurance lingo, and can easily access information from government records. However, it seems to me that the rhetoric of Obamacare has been that it will offer millions of Americans easy access to health coverage for the first time. It is easy, but it’s not that easy. If I did not have the education I have then I may have had some trouble navigating the bureaucracy and language.

If the goal of Obamacare is to get young people like myself enrolled in insurance programs, then I think Healthcare.Gov can work. If the goal is to get insurance to the most vulnerable among us who need it the most, then I fear it will fail because a lot of the same barriers that have always existed between the lower classes and affordable healthcare still exist. The subsidies will help, but the process may cost the program some enrollees. Personally, I still think the most vulnerable among us should be offered a public option that is as basic as if you have a social security number then you have security in the form of universal health care no matter where you come from or how much “worth”. Obamacare seems to work for me, but whether it will work for everyone… only time will tell. 

UPDATE 12/5: After a bit of searching I finally found the submit proof of your income portal. Again, the live chat option was no help at all, but after a bit of digging around my profile I finally found it. I uploaded a pay stub electronically. It was relatively simplae and there are a myriad of options for the type of documents that are accepted. All that should be left now is the insurance company contacting me. I'll update everyone when I have news. 

[1] I never did figure out from where that information originated.