Grocery Strike Possible: Food Fight Gets Messy Over Memo U.S. Health Care Aid Info Sent To Workers

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Vons employees, on the verge of striking, are outraged that the company has notified them about government programs that offer assistance paying for health care.

Vons says it was required because of a new federal law.

For 25 years, Arlene Romero has had health insurance while working as a cashier at the Vons on Telegraph Road at Victoria Avenue in Ventura. When she received the information in the mail, her mouth dropped open.

'I'm in shock,' she said. 'Honestly, that they would go that route, especially when they make the kind of money they make, and they want to put that burden on taxpayers?' Unionized grocery workers negotiating a new contract with Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons in Southern California made an issue of proposed increases to company health care plans this week during news conferences at various locations.

Vons spokesman Daymond Rice issued a statement about the notices Friday, saying the company was 'merely complying with federal law' by sending out the flier. He emphasized it was not in any way related to the ongoing labor negotiations.

'Employers are required by the Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 (CHIPRA) to inform each employee of potential opportunities currently available in the state in which the employee resides for group health plan premium assistance under Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). These notices are referred to as employer CHIP notices.' The notice Vons sent employees is identical to one available for download on the U.S. Department of Labor's website. Companies are now required to notify employees of their potential rights to premium assistance under a state's Medicaid or CHIP program because of the new law, which President Barack Obama signed in February 2009.

The notice was distributed in early May to all union employees, Rice said, adding that 'we believe we complied with the law.' The notice must be provided by the first day of the next plan year. For calendar-year plans, that means by Jan. 1, 2011. When asked when Vons' plan year begins, Rice said he'd have to research it.

Doug Heller, executive director of Santa Monicabased Consumer Watchdog, finds the timing of the mailer suspect, saying 'it seems pretty obvious that Vons is trying to influence employees with this letter – in a way suggesting that they better not challenge the status quo because their health coverage may be at stake.' Heller said it's ironic that corporate interests that fight against the government's role in health care are forcing people into it.

'In other words, politically, corporate America fights public health care,' he said, 'but for purposes of profit and union busting they're more than happy to take advantage of it. It's a reminder that the health care system based on private employers and private insurance is utterly broken.' Employees fear that Vons is heading down a path that Walmart has taken, reducing health coverage to the point where workers are forced to apply for Medicaid.

A 2006 study by the Center for a Changing Workforce found at that time that Walmart led the nation in employers who rely on taxpayers to subsidize their health plans.

Unionized grocery workers are battling with management at Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons as they enter their fourth month without a contract. This week, they said they are ready to strike if contract negotiations don't advance.

At a news conference Tuesday, United Food and Commercial Workers representatives and unionized grocery workers in Ventura said they cannot afford the companies' demands that each worker contribute $7,000 a year toward health care coverage when the average annual pay for unionized employees is $25,000.

Fred Muir, a spokesman for Albertsons, said the grocery chains have presented the union with a reasonable health care proposal. He noted in an email this week that while there are some changes to the current health and welfare plan, employees would pay as little as $9 a week for coverage, even if they work just 16 hours per week.

Mike Shimpock, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, suspects the information Vons sent to employees concerning Medicaid is a union-busting maneuver.

He said it's outrageous that Vons, which is owned by Safeway Inc., a company that last year allocated a $10.99 million compensation package to its CEO, Steven Burd, is 'nickel and diming' its employees.

'This guy is making $10.9 million and asking those that make less to give more,' Shimpock said. 'If they're compensating the executives in the millions, why are they trying to force their employees onto public assistance? Just to further maximize those profits?' Vons employees would have to qualify for government health insurance, according to Anthony Cava, spokesman for the California Department of Health Care Services.

'It would be taken on a case-by-case basis,' he said. 'If someone's employed, that would be up to the enrollment process to determine if they're eligible.' Rhiann Hatch, who works at a Vons in Ventura, said she has had health care for 15 years with Vons. She felt insulted when she got the flier indicating the company wanted taxpayers to help pay her medical coverage.

'Every three years we've had a little bit taken away and it's never been what they're taking away now,' she said. 'There's been a huge premium cost put onto us where we're going to have to opt out and be put on government health insurance.'

Contact the author at: [email protected] or 805-437-0265.

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