Some striking workers were caught off-guard when General Motors stopped paying for employee health insurance this week.
Nearly 50,000 workers at the automaker’s plants all around the country went on strike Monday for better pay and benefits. On Tuesday, the company said it had dropped their insurance.
The United Auto Workers union has a strike fund that pays striking workers $250 per week and covers health insurance through the federal COBRA program for laid-off workers. But, according to the UAW, the company cut the benefits without warning, before anyone knew they needed to sign up for COBRA.
“The company decided they were going to cut ’em yesterday before the union was ready to take over with our strike fund,” Al Tiller, shop chairman of UAW Local 1005 in Parma, Ohio, told Payday Report on Wednesday.
Tiller said some workers were actually unable to get health care as a result.
“We’ve had a couple members who’ve been sick, they couldn’t get teated,” Tiller said. “We’ve got a member with a kid who has cancer, went to get his treatment, and couldn’t get it.”
A GM spokesman said that technically, nobody experienced a gap in their insurance coverage because the COBRA policy kicks in from the moment the strike started.
“Medical and prescription drug benefits are continuous for striking workers, and benefits are even retroactive to the beginning of the strike for those that enroll in COBRA coverage,” the spokesman said.
“Striking employees can enroll over the phone by calling the GM Benefits and Service Center at 800-489-4646,” he added.
So if someone paid out of their own pocket for health care on Tuesday or Wednesday, they should be able to sign up for COBRA insurance and get paid back. But Tiller said that’s not realistic for someone who needs cancer treatment.
“We don’t have $10,000 to put down to get reimbursed for,” he said.
Local UAW officials in Missouri “scrambled” to sign workers up for COBRA coverage this week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday. And in Tennessee, the wife of one GM worker described waking up from a $40,000 stomach surgery to learn that her husband’s employer-sponsored health insurance had gone away.
“All of a sudden I am risking getting this major hospital bill we honestly couldn’t afford,” the woman told WZTV.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the GM health insurance fiasco bolstered his case for ditching private health insurance in favor of a government system that covers everybody regardless of employment.
“This is why we need Medicare for All ― so no one will ever lose coverage,” Sanders said in a Wednesday tweet. “Medicare for All means freedom, including freedom to strike.”
It’s unclear how long the work stoppage might last. The details of the negotiation for a new contract between GM and the UAW have been closely held; union officials have said they want better wages and better treatment of more recent hires and temporary workers, among other things.
In negotiations leading up to the strike, the company reportedly asked workers to pay 15% of the cost of their health benefits instead of the 3% or 4% they pay now.
Pointing to the company’s substantial profits, several workers have told HuffPost they don’t think they ought to have to make major concessions.