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At minimum wage, workers often forgo health insurance

By Alysee Shelton, Duluth News Tribune
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

March 09--Michael Stallings fears being in a major car accident or coming down with a serious illness because he doesn't have health insurance.

Latrice Ray has health insurance but worries it won't be good enough to get her the help she needs.

A number of minimum-wage workers in Duluth who work for small businesses are concerned when it comes to the future of their insurance and salaries.

A minimum-wage worker has an annual salary of just $14,500, according to the Organization for Action, a nonprofit social welfare group.

For many, that makes health insurance a luxury instead of a necessity.

Stallings works overnights at REM Arrowhead, handing out medicine and cooking breakfast for those with brain injuries.

This is the first minimum-wage job Stallings has worked. Even though REM Arrowhead provides health insurance to their workers, Stallings says he cannot afford it, so he's forced to put health and dental insurance aside.

"It costs a lot, and I don't know much about it," Stallings said. "I know it would take a lot out of my check, so I have to decline health insurance for now."

"I just have to deal with the sickness," Stallings said. "Some days I worry because I have toothaches and other minor aches. I just hope I don't have a major accident."

The lack of insurance is one of many stressful situations in Stallings' life. Paying for food, phone bills, rent and house needs can be a bit overwhelming at times too, he said.

"I can barely pay rent; it's not enough to pay my bills," Stallings said. "Everyday life consists of working and looking for an additional job so I can pay for everything and more."

Despite the challenges, Stallings says he tries to make the most with what he has. He says he enjoys his job and will occasionally hang with friends to "de-stress."

"I do get vacation time, plus I have a nice schedule, which is good," Stallings said. "I do like my job; it is pretty easy for the most part."

Ray also likes her job at the Boys and Girls Club in Duluth, where she has worked since September. But she says it's not enough to make ends meet.

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Ray also works a second job with the Duluth school district as a cafeteria monitor. She also is a first-year student at Duluth Business University.

"I have to work two part-time jobs to replace one full-time job," Ray said.

Because Ray works part-time, her employers do not provide her with insurance. However, she has coverage through UCare, an independent health insurance company originally started by the University of Minnesota that provides coverage and services to more than 350,000 members in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

Steve Wick, the Duluth Campus Organizer for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group said he sees a number of college students worried about not having enough money to cover basic needs such as food and health care.

"Many college students right now are working minimum-wage jobs," Wick said. "Tuition, books, insurance and rent are always rising, so it's getting harder to pay for things making minimum wage."

One of the biggest challenges Ray faces is losing time with her family. She has a 7-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter. She would like to spend more time with them and take them to the Duluth Children's Museum or the Great Lakes Aquarium.

"I don't have trouble paying for my kids' needs because I make them a priority," Ray said. "By all means, it is not easy, but I'm able to provide for them. Instead of paying for their wants and needs, I'm just focusing on their needs right now."

Stallings and Ray try to remain hopeful when it comes to health insurance.

"To tell you the truth I don't think minimum-wage costs will increase and health insurance costs will decrease," Stallings said. "I mean, I hope it does; it would benefit me and a lot of other people. It would allow me to buy health insurance, so I don't have to ever fear getting sick."

Ray said a minimum-wage increase wouldn't make things 100 percent better, but it definitely would be a start.

"It would not fix everything, but it would make a real difference," Ray said. "I need minimum wage to increase; I'm trying to keep my head above water. I also want more companies to accept the health insurance I have. It would be very helpful."

Things eventually could look up for Stallings, Ray and others. According to Organizing for Action, coverage is available for less than $100 a month for nearly six in 10 uninsured Americans, and one in 10 may be eligible for financial assistance through MNsure, the state's online health exchange. Open enrollment for individuals and families runs through March 31, and participants can choose a plan and sign up at MNsure.com.

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In addition, President Barack Obama has taken action to raise federal contractors' wages and has called on Congress to follow suit and pass the Harkin-Miller bill, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, benefiting as many as 30 million workers.

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(c)2014 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)

Visit the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.) at www.duluthnewstribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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