Health-care situations vary locally: Between a job and a hard place

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WALLA WALLA — She started working at an age long before most kids consider filling out their first application. By the time Lynzee Greenwald was 12, she was her dad’s right-hand girl at the family’s gourmet grocery business.

Having her father as a first boss laid an excellent foundation for the work ethic she now possesses, said Greenwald, now 23.

“He didn’t let me get away with stuff,” she said.

Knowing her way around kitchens and understanding the importance of good work has always helped Greenwald land jobs since then, including the job she now has at a Walla Walla franchise of a national restaurant chain.

She reached full-time employee status a few months after being hired in 2012. The predictable paychecks allowed her to pay rent, bills and make a dent in $25,000 worth of medical debt, she said.

“I was doing OK for myself,” said Greenwald, who requested her employer’s business not be named for fear of losing her job.

That economic progress changed in July for Greenwald and other co-workers. At her job, all 40 or so full-time employees were moved to 28 hours a week or less, she said.

“The company did this to ensure that no employees, other than managers, are able to receive benefits at the beginning of next year,” she said.

With a planned expansion of the business, she said, her employer will soon be considered a large employer, defined as a business with more than 50 workers. Under the Affordable Care Act, such businesses must offer meaningful and affordable health insurance to their full-time workers by 2015 or pay a penalty, according to the state’s Office of the Insurance Commissioner.

Insurance industry experts suggest health-care reform is playing a role in some employers’ decisions to cut hours so they don’t have to provide health coverage, said Wes Luckey, director of the state’s Health Benefit Exchange Navigator In-Person Assistor Program for Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties.

“However, the percentage of full-time workers still greatly exceeds that of part-timers,” he said. “While influenced by the Affordable Care Act, the shift since 2008 is mainly the result of structural changes initially triggered by the Great Recession and now driven by a combination of several factors.”

Those include increased productivity driven by technology, he added.

Greenwald was already accustomed to not having health insurance at her job, but the cut in hours makes everything worse, she said.

“It’s one thing to not offer your employees health insurance, but to cut their hours back to the point that they receive no benefits and cannot pay their bills is something I simply cannot come to terms with,” she said.

Greenwald’s health took an unusual turn three years ago when she was living and working in Alaska.

“I started getting pains in my stomach, and ended up in the ER three times in a week,” she said. “It was so bad I couldn’t get out of bed.”

Doctors have yet to definitively diagnose her condition. In the meantime she continues to require hospitalization for the worst of the bouts, undergo expensive tests, try new medicine and use medical providers who bill on a sliding-fee scale.

“Not having health insurance is major, knowing I have to go to the doctor,” Greenwald said. “I want to take care of myself, but it scares me having thousands of dollars in medical tests.”

Initially, obtaining coverage under the new Affordable Care Act provisions looked promising, Greenwald said. Then came her loss of work hours and the resulting decline in income.

Greenwald and other employees have approached the franchise owner, begging for full-time work in exchange for not signing up for employer-paid health insurance, she said.

“We’re exploring any loophole possible.”

In the meantime she is hanging onto every penny she can, searching for supplementary income or a new job. And she’s investigating buying her own health insurance, at a minimum of $50 a month, her research so far shows.

It’s terrific to have such options, but it means juggling more money going out with less coming in, Greenwald said.

Yet her inability to make significant progress on her medical debt bothers her most, she said.

“I pay whatever I can, when I can, now,” said Greenwald. “It’s the only thing left to be able to do.”

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