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‘It’s like we are just a piece of garbage’: Laid-off Philly workers face life without health insurance

Thousands of low-wage workers who got health care through their jobs are also losing their insurance. It could impact efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Suzie Wilson was recently laid off from her job at Local Tavern, in Terminal F of the Philadelphia International Airport.
Suzie Wilson was recently laid off from her job at Local Tavern, in Terminal F of the Philadelphia International Airport.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Days after Mayor Jim Kenney issued a sweeping order requiring most Philadelphia businesses to shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Phyllis Davis found out she was losing her job.

Davis, 52, a concierge supervisor at the Hampton Inn near the Convention Center, was devastated. She had given her whole life to Hersha Hospitality Management, which owns the inn, working almost all the roles during her 23 years with the company: housekeeper, bell clerk, front desk, breakfast bar.

But a few weeks later, after reading her layoff letter closely, she realized her situation was even worse than she had thought. Hersha had cut her health insurance on the same day she was laid off.

“We’re losing our jobs," Davis said. "That’s a big thing. And to turn around and you can’t go to the clinic because you don’t have health insurance? It’s just like we’re a piece of garbage. They just threw us to the curb.”

As the coronavirus rages through Philadelphia, thousands of low-wage workers like Davis are losing their health-care benefits when they lose their jobs. About 830,000 Pennsylvanians filed for unemployment in the last two weeks of March, more than the number of workers who filed in all of 2019. While county-level numbers aren’t yet available, Philadelphia, with its high concentration of low-wage service workers in the retail and hospitality industries, stands to be harder-hit than the rest of the state.

”With the number of people losing their jobs, there’s little doubt that the number of people uninsured is increasing right now, at the exact time when some of them will need health care the most, if they become infected and seriously ill," said Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

It’s hard to quantify how many are losing their health coverage, as many hourly workers don’t get health benefits through their job because it’s too expensive or their employers don’t offer it. In 2017, only 28% of full-time workers making below the federal poverty level got health insurance through their employers, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report. Others are uninsured, while some get it through government programs like Medicaid.

» READ MORE: Airport workers won predictable schedules, higher wages. Can they win affordable health care, too?

And the loss of these workers’ health-care benefits could have an impact on slowing the spread of COVID-19.

”The big concern is that people might wait until they get very, very sick before going to the hospital, and the possibility that they could have exposed more people along the way increases,” the foundation’s Cynthia Cox told Vox.

Some companies, including Urban Outfitters, Macy’s, and Kohl’s, said they would keep paying health-care benefits for furloughed workers. In Philadelphia, two high-profile restaurateurs, Stephen Starr and Michael Shulson, said they would cover the cost of health-insurance premiums for employees covered under company-funded plans for April. And workers covered by a plan that’s co-managed by their union and their employer, like many of the laid-off members of Unite Here, are able to get their benefits extended through the union plan even if employers have stopped contributing.

But some workers, including Unite Here members like Davis and laid-off airport food workers, are left without health coverage. They could continue their health plan through COBRA, but that would mean paying full price for the plan, plus a 2% administrative fee, which is not a viable option for laid-off, low-wage workers.

If you’ve lost your health coverage because of a layoff during the crisis, you’re eligible for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act or Medicaid, depending on your income. For help signing up for either of these options, call the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (877-570-3642) or Public Citizens for Children and Youth (215-563-5848 x17), which is helping adults sign up for coverage for themselves and their children during the coronavirus.

Suzie Wilson, a prep cook at Philadelphia International Airport who is among the hundreds laid off in the last two weeks, is another low-wage worker who’s losing her health coverage. Wilson, a Jamaican immigrant known as “Miss Suzie,” has worked in eateries at the airport for the last 12 years. Most recently, she worked at Local Tavern, a restaurant in Terminal F run by OTG, the New York-based company behind the $30 million redesign that equipped many airport restaurants with touchscreens in 2017.

» READ MORE: Why Philly workers are fighting for a local coronavirus relief fund

Wilson, 55, was happy to move to an OTG restaurant three years ago because she was able to get a consistent 40-hour schedule each week, as well as health insurance. She was making $14.50 an hour. But after getting laid off in March, she found out that she’d lose her heath coverage at the end of the month.

“If I took sick right now, I couldn’t go to the doctor," she said, “because I don’t have any money and I’m not working."

Unite Here said just over one-third of OTG’s 400 former workers use the company’s health insurance plan. The union has been in contract negotiations with OTG for a year and a half — the sticking point is the cost of its health-care plan.

OTG did not respond to a request for comment.

“I don’t know what OTG is thinking about their workers," Wilson said, “but this is not right.”

For Davis, a mother of five grown daughters who lives in Southwest Philadelphia, the concern is being able to get tested for the coronavirus.

“The first thing they’re going to ask is, do you have health insurance?” she said.

Large health-insurance companies have said they will cover the cost of testing, but experts say that there are many ways to get hit with surprise bills, including the cost of a visit to the ER where you might get tested.

An even bigger concern for Davis is her youngest daughter, who gave birth last year.

Davis, who was making almost $16 an hour at the Hampton and paying $85 a month for health insurance, had kept her daughter on her insurance so she could give birth at a good hospital — Penn Medicine’s Pennsylvania Hospital. Her daughter had been going to the doctor frequently in her first year after giving birth, but now she’s uninsured.

Through a spokesperson, Hersha — Davis’ employer — said it had to reduce its pre-pandemic staffing levels by 90% and hoped to hire the workers back “when business volumes resume.”

“Our associates have always been — and will remain — our top priority,” the company said in a statement.

Davis, though, remained stunned.

“Do you treat your people like that, who have been so loyal to you?” she said. “You say we’re a family. Do you throw your family out like trash?”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at