Three-Quarters of Striking Grocery Store Workers Now Ineligible for Union Health Coverage
About 77% of the 70,000 striking and locked-out unionized supermarket workers at Albertsons, Kroger-owned Ralphs and Safeway-owned Vons lost their health care coverage on Jan. 1 and must pay to keep their health insurance active because they did not work enough hours in October to maintain coverage, according to union officials, the Orange County Register reports (Galvin, Orange County Register, 1/7). United Food and Commercial Workers members employed by the grocery stores began a strike in mid-October to protest proposed revisions in their health benefits and other contract issues. The companies have sought a two-year wage freeze; a requirement that workers pay $780 in annual premiums for family health insurance; a cap on employer contributions to health benefits for workers, which would most likely lead to a decrease in coverage; and a second tier of wages and health benefits for new hires in which employer contributions to health benefits would total about $1,800 per worker per year, compared with about $5,000 per worker per year for current workers under the past contract. The latest round of negotiations ended in December after the companies rejected the union's latest contract proposal, which would have required the companies to continue the current "maintenance of benefits" plan, under which both sides agree on a health plan and copayment levels and the companies cover unexpected cost increases (California Healthline, 12/23/03). Workers who are no longer eligible for their health coverage can receive family benefits either by paying $365 for a one-time, three-month extension or by paying about $500 per month to maintain benefits under COBRA for a maximum of 18 or 36 months, according to a letter the health benefits trust fund sent to union members last month. The trust fund has enough money to operate through at least the end of January.
The loss of health coverage "could ratchet up pressure on union leaders to reach a settlement," the Register reports. However, Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324 in Buena Park, said that while he was "feeling pressure to achieve a settlement," picketers with whom he has spoken remain "determined to hold out for an acceptable contract," according to the Register. "We haven't been out here 13 weeks to cave now," Conger said. According to a spokesperson for Peter Hurtgen, the federal mediator who is negotiating with the union and the supermarkets, there is "no indication talks will resume soon," the Register reports (Orange County Register, 1/7).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.