Many essential workers at SFO have tested positive for coronavirus but have limited access to health insurance. (Courtesy photo)

Many essential workers at SFO have tested positive for coronavirus but have limited access to health insurance. (Courtesy photo)

Legislation would improve airport workers better access to health insurance

Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Shamann Walton announced at a press conference Tuesday legislation to raise the standard for health care access and affordability for nearly nearly 9,500 workers at San Francisco International Airport.

As of July 20, 76 people who work at the airport have tested positive for COVID-19, but many of these frontline workers are underinsured or entirely uninsured because of the high cost of employer-provided health care, according to the supervisors.

Workers report monthly premiums up to $800 for family coverage, and many have said they avoid doctor’s appointments and necessary treatments because of expensive co-pays. Many earn minimum wage, making health care a disproportionate and unsustainable expense.

Others, such as Ed Lewis, who has worked at SFO for 55 years, say they worry about how to afford treatment for their children should they contract the virus while on the job and bring it home.

Walton and Mandelman were joined in sponsoring the legislation by five of the unions that represent SFO’s cabin cleaners, security personnel, rental car agents and truck drivers, catering employees, and luggage handlers, among others: SEIU United Service Workers West, Teamsters 665 and 856, Teamsters 2785, and UNITE HERE Local 2.

Their Healthy Airport Ordinance would amend the existing Healthcare Accountability Ordinance from 2001. It would require airport employers to provide employees and their families with health insurance benefits that meet the minimum standards of the Affordable Care Act at no cost, or pay into a Covered California medical reimbursement account for SFO employees, Mandelman said.

“We’re amongst all the people, we’re exposed to everything. They don’t understand that what we do is a lot harder than they think it is, and we have a lot to worry about,” Lewis said of his belief that leadership at these companies currently doesn’t do enough to protect workers.

Pearl Li, a flight coordinator for airline catering company Gate Gourmet, says she’s afraid to return to work, but she simply can’t afford to forego the income.

“I love my job, but the health insurance is very hard,” she said. Li’s husband has diabetes and kidney problems, so he receives regular dialysis. The Gate Gourmet’s health insurance plan is too expensive, and she’s instead enrolled in a Covered California plan that still empties her pockets.

Airport workers are overwhelmingly persons of color, lower-income and, many times, monolingual. They can’t afford not to work, though their jobs often involve cramped conditions where social distancing isn’t possible or direct engagement with passengers.

These communities are the same that have been the most impacted by the COVID-19 public health crisis in San Francisco. Local Public Health Department data reveals the highest concentration of cases in neighborhoods such as the Mission and Bayview where a large portion of the City’s Black and Latinx populations reside.

A University of California San Francisco study found other risk factors for recent infections at the time were “inability to shelter in place and maintain income, frontline service work, unemployment and household income of less than $50,000 per year.”

“We cannot continue to allow any of our SF essential workers to be invisible,” Walton said.

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