Oklahoma Watch: Low-income workers may fall into health care 'coverage crater' in January

Oklahoma Watch: There are 109,227 uninsured Oklahoma workers whose annual incomes fall below the federal poverty level, making them ineligible for health-insurance tax credits that take effect in January.
BY WARREN VIETH AND DARREN JAWORSKI, Oklahoma Watch Published: July 21, 2013
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Those populations were then analyzed to determine which industry groups and occupations had the highest numbers and rates of uninsured workers.

Of the 424,173 Oklahoma workers who have no insurance, 109,227 had family incomes below the poverty level, placing them in the coverage crater. The federal poverty level is $11,490 for a single person and $15,510 for a two-person family. Each additional dependent increases the level by $4,020.

Some types of employment account for a disproportionately large number of uninsured workers with incomes below the poverty line: 20,220 people in food preparation and serving jobs, 12,869 in construction trades, 12,758 office workers, 11,980 retail salespeople and 11,739 janitors and housekeepers.

Chris Lewis, president of First Maintenance Co., does not offer health insurance to the more than 300 janitors who work for him, mainly at night, cleaning more than 6 million square feet of office space in and around Oklahoma City.

Lewis said most of his employees work about four hours per night, often as a second job. He pays them the equivalent of about $10 an hour on a per-job basis. Janitorial services contracting is a highly competitive, labor-intensive industry, he said, and his gross profits run about $200 to $300 per month per employee.

“Sure, I'd like to be able to do that,” Lewis said. “But if you're grossing $200 per person per month, can you buy each person a $250 health care plan? No, you can't.”

In some categories of employment, more than half of below-poverty-line workers have no insurance: 89 percent of roofers, 87 percent of stock clerks, 85 percent of carpenters, 84 percent of construction laborers and 81 percent of landscapers.

Restaurants and other food establishments account for many of the uninsured. Among all cooks, waiters, kitchen help and other food-service employees, for example, 67 percent of those below the poverty line have no insurance.

Some of those may be by choice.

Chris Lower, part owner of four Oklahoma City restaurants, said he offered nearly 100 employees the opportunity to participate in Insure Oklahoma, a program that subsidizes health insurance coverage for workers with state tax funds and employer contributions. His workers were asked to pay only 15 percent of the total monthly premium.

Fewer than 10 employees wanted to take part, Lower said.

“We passed that out to almost 40 people at Big Truck (Tacos) and had one person sign up. I was shocked,” he said.

“Unless an employer is going to fund 100 percent of the employee's benefits, it's hard to get somebody who's making $24,000 a year to pay for even a small part of their benefits,” Lower said. “A lot of these are young people who think they're bulletproof.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers with more than 50 full-time-equivalent employees will be required to offer affordable health care workers beginning in 2015. Uninsured people will be required to obtain insurance policies or pay a penalty, starting at $95 per adult in 2014 and rising to $625 per adult in 2016. In states that refuse to expand Medicaid, those earning less than the poverty level will not have to pay the penalty.

Christy Johnson, 38, is a single mother who earns about $9 an hour for a small telecommunications firm. Her employer doesn't provide health insurance. Even if it did, she doesn't think she could afford her share of the monthly premiums.

“I wouldn't have a couple of hundred per month for that,” she said. “I could squeeze out, maybe, $75 a month.”

Johnson's 13-year-old daughter is covered by SoonerCare because she's a minor, but Johnson doesn't qualify. So she's come up with her own alternative health care plan to deal with occasional illness.

“I take NyQuil,” she said.