US workers face hardships over pandemic

As millions of workers around the US remain out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, employers are pushing cuts to wages, eliminating health insurance and other benefits, and terminating workers rather than furloughing them.

Rodney Watts worked at the Atlanta international airport employed by the retail and concessions contractor HMS Host for nine years as a warehouse shift supervisor before getting laid off in March.

Watts says he is using his unemployment benefits to pay for his insulin, as he lost his health insurance with his job termination.

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“Without insurance I have to pay out of pocket … I take insulin shots three times a day. Now I’m using unemployment to pay for it,” said Watts. “My diabetes is a rollercoaster. If I don’t take my shots, I feel real bad. The insulin runs me almost $400 for just a small bottle and I also take metformin.”

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Some employers are pushing to avoid providing workers with health insurance, even as the workers begin to return to work, and others out of work who have kept their health insurance are struggling to afford co-pays for life-saving medications.

Hanna Castano of Euclid, Ohio, who has type 1 diabetes, lost her job as a server at a Bob Evans restaurant in March 2020 when the pandemic shutdown began. She found a new job at a local drug mart but was shortly laid off due to lack of customer demand the store had anticipated. The change in employment disrupted her unemployment benefits, of which she has only received one week of pay, and the loss of income left her struggling to afford the $50 co-pay for her insulin under her Medicaid coverage. Though her restaurant reopened, she is still waiting to be called back into work when customer demand recovers.

“I will go sick because my daughter needs something that I have to get,” said Castano, who has relied on financial support from friends and family while living in a motel. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep paying for my insulin and not being able to get the food and diapers that my daughter needs because I will die without it.”

The Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, is suing the Unite Here union, seeking to stop making healthcare payments for more than 1,000 workers under the current union contract.

A housekeeper for 10 years at the hotel, Cristina Aguirre-Sevillano, cannot afford medicine prescribed to her, which costs nearly $400 out of pocket, after recently testing positive for Covid-19.

“I haven’t been able to get the medicine my doctor recommended me to take,” said Aguirre-Sevillano. “My daughter is also under my health insurance plan, so she lost her health insurance. I don’t have health insurance, I can’t afford medicine and I can’t pay my rent either because I only received one payment of $275 from unemployment since being furloughed in March.”

Initially furloughed in March, Aguirre-Sevillano was called back to work in June but has worked only five days. She is one of several workers in Florida who have not received their full unemployment benefits yet, and she continues to experience problems with the state system.

Wendi Walsh, the Unite Here Local 355 secretary-treasurer, said union contract language stipulates hotels must continue healthcare coverage for employees until they have not worked the required number of hours for two consecutive quarters. She said: “Every other hotel we represent has that same contract language and they are abiding by it because they are legally required to do so and amidst a pandemic it’s the moral thing to do, but the Fontainebleau has taken a different path, going so far as to file a lawsuit to avoid taking care of their employees during a deadly outbreak of a virus.”

Tourists visit the pool outside of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel. Photograph: Brynn Anderson/AP

According to Walsh, the hotel also proposed implementing wage cuts of between 10{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} and 20{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} for workers in the bargaining unit. “The union is rejecting that proposal and would oppose the company unilaterally implementing those wage cuts,” added Walsh.

Monalisa Rodriguez, a server and hostess at Terranea Resort outside Los Angeles, for seven years, was terminated in May after initially being furloughed.

“It was devastating. At the same time they fired us, they took away our health benefits,” said Rodriguez, who was hoping to eventually retire from the resort. She relies solely on her income to provide for two children and take care of her mother. “It’s been extremely hard. I’ve struggled a lot trying to figure out how to provide for my family, relying on food banks and the Salvation Army to make ends meet.”

A spokesperson for Terranea Resort said in an email that 550 out of 1,100 employees were laid off in May 2020 for the resort’s survival. “We will continue to bring back all employees according to our seniority policy and will rehire laid-off employees should we have the opportunity to do so.”

Mozes Bautista, who has worked at Hilton Embassy Suites in Phoenix, Arizona, for five years, recently returned to work after being terminated, but he has to wait until September 2020 for his health insurance to restart with the company.

“They said they would give back the paid time off but only gave back some of it. Because they fired us, we’re reclassified as new hires so we don’t have health insurance until September,” said Batista. “They’re no longer matching our 401(k) either.”

Gate Gourmet, an airliner catering contractor, was one of several airline companies to receive federal bailout funds to prevent layoffs, but it terminated workers anyway. Over $170m is allocated from the Cares Act to Gate Gourmet for payroll protection. According to Unite Here, Gate Gourmet had about 8,000 employees before the pandemic, with only 1,100 currently working and plans to bring back just 1,600 additional workers on 1 September.

Lamar Banks worked as a customer service assistant for nearly six years at Gate Gourmet in Chicago before he was laid off in May 2020, just weeks after he had a child and had to use all his paid time off to quarantine after a supervisor tested positive for coronavirus.

“I got a letter in the mail shortly after saying it was going to be a permanent layoff,” said Banks. “They stopped health insurance.” Banks said Cobra, which allows Americans to continue benefits they once received from a job, costs $500 a month, and she had not received unemployment yet. “I don’t know what I’m going to do or what that means. I was thinking when things got better, I’d be able to go back to work.”

Gate Gourmet would not clarify its current employment numbers. “We are committed to complying with all our obligations, including covid safety measures, seriously and will use all Cares Act funds exclusively for the continuation of payment of employee wages, salaries and benefits,” said a spokesperson. “We continue to be a proud employer to thousands of workers in the United States and are ready to serve our customers as they begin to resume operations.”

Related: Workers fight back as US hotels try to lay off staff and hire on the cheap

The Fontainebleau Hotel and HMS Host did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Speaking to the Miami Herald, Silvia Pereda, Fontainebleau vice-president of human resources, said the hotel was “focused on recovering its financial stability so that it can return as many of its laid-off, former employees as possible to employment, which will, critically, result in them receiving a paycheck and benefits once again”.

The union’s demands for payment of benefits for laid-off workers was making this harder, Pereda said.