Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is extending health insurance benefits to staffers through the end of October despite his exit from the race this week.
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, informed staffers in a call Thursday that the campaign was committed to ensuring all 500 employees had health insurance coverage during the coronavirus pandemic, several staffers confirmed.
The campaign will cover payroll through the end of May for employees who have been on staff for longer than six months. Those who have been employed for less than six months will be paid through one pay period in May, the first half of the month. All employees will be eligible for $1,000 monthly stipends if they opt into COBRA, the federal program that allows individuals to continue group health benefits provided by their employers at personal cost. Staffers will be able to receive the stipend through the end of October, a few days before the general election.
Sanders suspended his presidential campaign on Wednesday, a day after the Wisconsin Democratic primary, saying the path to the nomination was “virtually impossible.” Both Sanders and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden have been confined to their homes, and, in Sanders’ case, the U.S. Senate, for the last month, unable to hold public events during the pandemic.
The Sanders campaign kept field staff and advance teams, which organize travel and the senator’s public events, on payroll for the last month, even though they were unable to do in-person organizing work and campaigning.
Sanders has been a vocal opponent of the current health insurance system in the U.S., which ties health benefits to employment. He has proposed a “Medicare for All” system, where the government provides health insurance for all Americans regardless of job status or income.
His message has become particularly poignant as millions of Americans lose their jobs due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“This horrific crisis that we are now in has exposed how absurd our current employer-based health insurance system is,” Sanders told supporters after suspending his campaign. “While Americans have been told, over and over again, how wonderful our employer-based, private insurance system is, those claims sound very hollow now as a growing number of unemployed workers struggle with how they can afford to go to the doctor, or not go bankrupt with a huge hospital bill.”
Extending benefits coverage through the general election is an unprecedented move for a presidential campaign, likely possible for Sanders due to his campaign’s massive fundraising haul. It’s expected to cost the campaign millions of dollars, depending on how many staffers choose to sign up for COBRA. The campaign ended its first quarter of 2020 with $28 million on hand, though the campaign ceased its fundraising operation in the last month.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg promised to keep his campaign staff employed through the general election, but broke that pledge. Instead he offered payment through the first week in April, full benefits through the end of April, and allowed staffers to keep their campaign-issued electronics, which were taxed as income.
Sanders staffers, the first presidential campaign to unionize in U.S. history, also negotiated severance in their union contract with the United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 400.
The campaign did not respond to a request for comment.