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The Price of a Civilized Society for Workers

Americans should let corporations know we're willing to pay to help workers

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on November 26, 2012.

By Laura Beth Nielsen

Denny's franchise owner John Metz told Fox News recently that our Grand Slams soon will come with a side of surcharge to pay for Obamacare. Walmart and other retailers pushed Black Friday earlier into Thanksgiving (Thanksgetting?) even as many of their employees threatened to strike on the most profitable day of the year. And, according to Hostess Brands, Inc., they went into bankruptcy recently not because Americans are reluctant to stuff our children's lunch boxes with hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup or because the CEO took massive pay increases the last time they were in bankruptcy, but because bakers would not accept an 8 percent decrease in pay and cuts to their health insurance.

Away from the door busting stampedes, protests and skirmishes from last week, as we enter the more civilized part of the holiday shopping season, it is time to consider those who work so hard to make our holidays happy and keep our economy churning.

It is time for Americans to let the corporations we patronize and depend upon know that many of us want all workers -- especially low-wage workers -- to have civilized working conditions and access to health care. And we are willing to pay.

Demonizing Obamacare and the low-wage workers who will benefit from it underestimates Americans' commitment to a social safety net. Most Americans are with workers because most Americans are workers. We are willing to pay a small charge for our Papa John's pizza and wait a day to shop so our friends and neighbors can enjoy a civilized life where everyone is able to enjoy family holidays and access health care when they (or their children) are ill.

Most Americans, I presume, are happy to pay to help protect the real job creators: our waiter at Denny's, our cashier at Walmart and the guy who bakes our Ding Dongs.

In October of 2011, in the absence of Obamacare, the rising cost of providing health insurance forced Walmart to cut back on modest health insurance benefits they provide to some of their employees. In fact, employees who work fewer than 24 hours per week are no longer eligible and full-time workers began having to pay more to keep their benefits, shifting uncovered workers onto Medicare if they needed health insurance.

When workers at companies like these are not receiving health care, the price of our flapjacks and household goods were artificially underpriced. It's time for Americans to pay up and Obamacare is an inexpensive way to do it.

The annual fee that large employers are required to pay for choosing not to provide health care for an employee under Obamacare is $2,000. (Note to Mr. Metz: I just finished my open enrollment and my employer's portion is closer to $20,000 annually. To be sure, providing nothing is less than paying $2,000. But it is far less than the current market price for health care.)

Universal health care also enables mobility which is good for workers and employers. For a worker, it means that she can take advantage of better opportunities when they are available without worrying about the binding ties of health insurance. This is especially important for white women and people of color who face the most durable glass ceilings in low-wage jobs. For employers, universal health care means firing someone is not a death sentence if they or someone in their family relies on health care to treat chronic conditions.

The $2000 fee per employee per year is a modest price for companies and, as some business-owners have been telling anyone who will listen, business owners will not just "absorb" these costs; they will pass them along to consumers.

But so what? Consumers already pay for the uninsured. Since we don't let people die on the hospital steps, low-wage workers not eligible for health care at companies like Wal-Mart use Medicare. Everyone's income taxes, higher insurance premiums for those of us who have it, and even charitable donations already are subsidizing health care expenses. Obamacare simply reallocates these costs and collects them from businesses who will collect them from us.

But how much will we have to pay? When I waitressed at Denny's in college in the early 90s, I served about 50 meals per shift. At five shifts a week and 50 weeks per year, that's 12,500 meals annually. An extra 16 cents per meal would more than cover this former waitresses' Obamacare fee.

When all workers have decent working conditions and universal health care, we become a more civilized society. And if our pancakes, pizza or household goods cost a few cents more, many of us are happy to pay. Certainly some Americans will say it is up to the individual to pay for his or her own health care, but in the absence of affordable individual coverage for low-wage workers, a small tax on business is an efficient and fair way to guarantee civilized working conditions for all workers.

- Laura Beth Nielson is associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Legal Studies at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion
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