The Effects

01.28.14

The Dark Side of Health Care Reform

Three jobs, 16-hour days—and still no health care. In California, immigrant women are facing an uphill struggle.

There is a dull silence when the subject of health care is broached. Barbara Rosales delivers a weak smile as she begins to detail her struggle over the past few months, since her employers realized they would be forced to pay into their employees health care as part of the national Affordable Care Act. "I have seen my hours go down 10 hours a week at both my jobs," says Rosales, who works as a line cook at two Bay Area chain restaurants and is originally from El Salvador. "It is really hurting us and we don't know what to do," she says in a combination of Spanish and broken English at her small house in San Francisco’s Outer Mission district where she raises her two children. "I worked around 35 hours at both my jobs through October, but then things started to change and we all began to be sent home early or when we weren't needed. It is hard and I am paying more so that my children are covered."

Her story is not unusual for many single mothers in California and across the country. Now that employers with more than 50 employees are required by law to offer health care coverage to workers who regularly log at least 30 hours week, some businesses are reducing their part-time staff’s work. (Employers with fewer than 50 workers are not required to provide coverage under the new health care provisions.) This has left many workers out in the cold.

While fast-food chains have seen a number of protests from workers over cut hours, forcing those companies to scrap or rethink plans, smaller businesses treating workers in a similar fashion aren't facing a backlash from the public.

Rosales' friend, Maria, a 29-year-old Mexican-American who received her citizenship papers two years ago, believes that her hours are being reduced because the company she works for doesn't want to cover all her medical insurance costs.

"It was made clear to me that because we are hourly workers we won't have anything to say about it, and because we are poor women from outside America, few media coverage is happening. We are the ones who are made to suffer," Rosales says.

"It is so obvious what is happening and they are telling us that they can't afford to pay all this into health care, so it results in us having our hours cut. Instead of not having to pay anything into my health care plan, as stated by my Kaiser statements, my hours were dropped to 28 hours a week and this means I am paying around $100 a month to have health services," she says.

For single mothers like Rosales and her friend Maria, this new reality means looking for alternative work. After her two six-hour shifts at the restaurants were reduced by at least two hours each day, Rosales needed to pick up a third job. She now works at yet another area cafe where she prepares sandwiches for the day ahead between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., before she moves to her other jobs, where she spends another 10 to 12 hours cutting vegetables and other food.

"I don't get much time to see my kids, except on Sundays when I have a day off," she says. "It isn't fair, and from what I can see a lot of the people being hurt the most by the cutting of hours are those people who really need it and the health insurance.”

While she has been able to cover her costs, others have not been so lucky.

Take Laura Mendez, a 34-year-old immigrant mother of three from Mexico City, who hadn't worried about health care or insurance until her 12-year-old daughter began struggling with asthma. "I had a good health care plan with my job," she says of her full-time position as a cook at an upscale San Francisco restaurant. But, she continues, "when the whole health care thing came about, I saw my hours cut from between 35 and 40 every week to between 24 and 28. That means I lost my full coverage from my employer and it meant fewer visits to the hospital." She also had to pay more out of pocket as her coverage was no longer receiving the full subsidization that she had signed up for.

San Francisco restaurant manager William Nelson, who oversees a workforce of around 25 in the city, tells The Daily Beast that "many restaurants are hesitant to put out any additional money and the overall costs for covering all employees is high, so what a lot of places are doing is hiring another person or two and reducing hours from all hourly workers to cover the requirements of providing health care."

For Nelson it is simply a matter of business and isn't personal, but he does admit that the majority of kitchen workers in the Bay Area are immigrants, many of them women, who have little to no recourse.

"We do understand that those hardest hit by the reduction in hours are the immigrant workers, but there is nothing we can do about it when the ownership decides this is the best way to limit our costs," he says.

These changes are part of the larger, ongoing debate concerning labor practices. As California readies an increase in minimum wage (it will rise to $9 an hour in June and then $10 on January 1, 2015) businesses, especially restaurants where hours are already being cut, have warned that the bump could mean additional layoffs. Activists like 22-year-old Naquasia LeGrand, a fast-food worker who fights for better worker conditions and higher wages, are trying to change that. She said recently in a segment on "The Colbert Report" that organizing strikes as part of the Fast Food Forward initiative is "paramount" to ending the misunderstanding of what health-care provisions and minimum wage increases actually mean for the public and workers.

She's not alone. Economists have long debated the impact of requiring employers to offer health insurance and the increase of the minimum wage. One result claimed by many studies is a slight increase in food prices at each restaurant or cafe to cover any additional costs. And it appears average Americans are willing to support such moves, according to a Gallup Poll published last March on public perceptions of minimum wage.

Still, for Rosales and other immigrant women building a new life in the U.S. with their children, the reduction in hours is not sustainable. They blame the government for not ensuring that businesses wouldn’t decrease hours in order to avoid paying.

"It was made clear to me that because we are hourly workers we won't have anything to say about it, and because we are poor women from outside America, few media coverage is happening. We are the ones who are made to suffer," Rosales says.

She says that the increase in minimum wage cannot come fast enough. This will help push her earnings to where they were last year, back to the point where she can afford to spend a few hundred dollars a month to keep her children healthy.

"This is about people and doing the right thing. I don't understand how people can stand by and allow us women and our children to face [an] uncertain future because our jobs won't keep giving us the hours,” she says. “This is the life of so many people I know and it is hard for us to live.”