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Want to Understand Obamacare? Ask Trader Joe’s

Ever since the demise of Tweetdeck, I have been searching for an adequate replacement that would allow me to peruse all of my social media accounts in one place. So far, there has been nothing on the horizon. Twitter bought Tweetdeck, arguably the best interface for social media, and proceeded to cut off access from all other social media sources such as Facebook. That left a bunch of us in the wailing and gnashing of teeth for lunch bunch.

I continue to search for an adequate replacement and have sort of found one in FlipBook. It still leaves a lot to be desired, however (like, timeliness of posts). In the meantime, I have joined the unwashed masses and use the “regular” interfaces for Twitter and FB. Oh, the pain…

Anyway, I digress.

trader joe logoIt seems my good friend, Dan Chmielewski over at The Liberal OC, posted an interesting Facebook article on the Affordable Care Act the other day. Like many of you, I have been a bit confused on what to expect from Obamacare. Compounded by the fact that California has taken a lead position on the upcoming law, we sit on the eve of a new age – or, destruction, depending on how you look at it.

Now, Trader Joe’s, a favorite hangout of mine, has taken to the Washington Post to give us all a simple explanation of how ACA will work for the masses.

Sara Kliff writes a column for the Washington Post. She recently posted a couple of articles regarding Trader Joe’s announcement they would end healthcare benefits for some part-time employees. Instead, they would receive a $500 stipend and directions to the new public insurance marketplaces to help them buy low cost insurance. Wow, is that cold or what?

Well, not according to TJ’s.

Contrary to popular belief, there are still private sector jobs out there that offer healthcare benefits as a way of attracting and retaining good employees (there are still private pension plans out there as well but, that’s another story). Employers often see the added benefit of having a healthy workforce that takes fewer sick days off. Employers, in most cases, also receive a side benefit in taxes and other financial incentives from group purchase of insurance.  So, how can cutting people from the company insurance plan help?

No one will argue these are trying financial times. And, although the country is recovering from the worst depression this country has had, it is still far from robust. Jobs are still hard to find and those that do find jobs are often faced with fewer choices in insurance and pensions, both of which are expensive benefits to offer employees.

According to one article by Kliff, the basis for ACA is to provide insurance to those who could not afford it on their own, making it mandatory for Americans to have insurance as a way of keeping costs down (hence, the “affordable” part).

The insurance market under Obamacare, in other words, is supposed to be a friendlier one than what exists right now. And that’s what Trader Joe’s seems to be betting on with its move: that its workers will see similar options without the grocery store footing the full bill.

Whether this will be true is hard to game out at this point. The Huffington Post did talk to one Trader Joe’s worker who estimated that she earned about $20,000 and currently pays $70 a month for a pretty robust health plan. Trader Joe’s plans to kick in $500 for each employee, or about $40 per month. So we’re looking at a total of $110 to spend on the marketplace each month, if spending holds to the same level as what Trader Joe’s workers pay right now.

Interestingly, as we approach “D-day” for the launch of the insurance marketplace in California, it seems that affordable insurance will be a reality. Kliff notes that Kaiser is touting  sub $100 a month premiums for a young person making $20,000 a year. That seems to jibe with Governor Jerry Brown’s predictions under the Covered California.

So, what about TJ’s apparent employee dumping? One commenter on Dan’s FB page compared it to Wal Mart in how they approach the issue of employee healthcare. That’s really comparing apples to oranges, though. Where Trader Joe’s is looking to find a compromise that will not harm their employees (have you ever seen an unhappy TJ’s employee?), Wal Mart has literally pushed their employees into lining up for public benefits such as food stamps and welfare. Where TJ’s has respect for their employees and seeks to cut costs while maintaining benefits, Wal Mart actively seeks to lower the standard of living for their employees while forcing the Feds to take responsibility for them. How’s that for a corporate philosphy?

Interestingly, CNBC ran a blurb on their All American Economic Survey that showed the majority of the 800 respondents were not in favor of defunding Obamacare with or without a



government shutdown. From CNBC:

Opposition to defunding increases sharply when the issue of shutting down the government and defaulting is included. In that case, Americans oppose defunding 59 percent to 19 percent, with 18 percent of respondents unsure. The final 4 percent is a group of people who want to defund Obamacare, but become unsure when asked if they still hold that view if it means shutting down the government.

The numbers don’t change much, according to CNBC, when you break it down male/female or among the middle of the road conservatives and liberals. As one would expect, it is only in the extreme Tea Party/GOP ranks that the numbers in favor of defunding become significant, meaning that more mainstream Americans are becoming comfortable with the idea of government involvement in the general public’s healthcare.

Funny how it was reported the House and Senate members were lining up for free physicals, presumably, in anticipation of the shutdown. Contrary to popular belief, Legislators have the same healthplan offered to any Federal worker. It has actually been praised as a model for healthcare and one that Obama looked to for ideas on ACA. Sorry, their pension plan is also the same and retiring members don’t get a windfall when they retire.

So, as ACA falls upon us, are employers like Trader Joe’s going to be the norm? It is clear they value their employees as much as they value their customers who will reap the benefit of any cost savings they can manage by managing their employees benefits. While many questions about ACA have been answered, one question remains: If Kaiser can offer such low insurance rates unde ACA, why couldn’t they do so on their own?

What’s for Dinner?

My daughter is finally back from her Summer spent with her grandfather. That could mean only one thing: a trip to the grocery store.

While my daughter has been away, my wife and I have happily subsisted on fast food and salads, mixed with an occasional pizza here and there. As a carnivore, items to grill were particularly useful to us as it kept the heat out of our unairconditioned house. So, today’s sojourn had us stopping at one of my favorite stores, Trader Joes. I won’t go into the bloody details but suffice it to say my wallet was a tad lighter coming out of the store.

Of course, this trip got me to thinking a little more about the grocery workers and the pending strike. Most of us remember the bloody strike of 2003-2004. There was strong support for the strikers

Grocery workers strike in 2003-2004

Photo courtesy of the OC Register

with one union contributing heavily to their strike fund and several unions holding “sympathy strikes”. During that time, I refused to cross the picket lines in the first weeks of the strike, choosing to take my business to Stater Bros. and Trader Joes. In the first days of the strike, many people were choosing alternative stores to shop at.

It is unfortunate that both management and union chose to cheat the system. The stores struck hired scabs on the side and even secretly hired some of their own employees who crossed their own picket line in a selfish move for “me” without looking at the long term consequences. I wonder now if those same employees would do it again? The chains were also caught in a secret plot to conspire against the workers, although about the only thing they got for their transgression was a slap on the hand.

The union employees started strong. But, their picket lines eventually degenerated at times to name-calling mobs and some of their ranks defected (see above).  On the picket line, many could be seen talking more among themselves and not even holding signs up or making an effort to keep their message fresh and in front of the customers whom they needed for support. It became as commonplace to see them as the homeless guy standing humbly by the water vending machine waiting for an anonymous patron. Once, as I walked by the doors of Von’s to get to my Starbucks next door, a picketer yelled at me, thinking I was going into the store, until he saw me head toward Starbucks. What did that say for their perseverance and their fortitude? You see, it is one thing to stand with the group. But, you have to believe in the group you stand with. That is the whole idea of the union to begin with. The strike vote is one of the most powerful tools a union can have. It should be used wisely and sparingly. When it is used, you can’t shoot blanks like the UFCW did so long ago.

And people remember.

Although I am a conservative, I believe in the right of employees to protect their jobs by organizing unions and associations for a common purpose. I believe in the right to strike to protect wages and benefits. And to my critics, I’ll say I have worked both sides of the aisle as manager and employee and my view has never changed. I worked for years in the aerospace industry where management and workers could mutually respect one another and still stand up civilly for their rights. When I saw how the grocery workers were defeating themselves with their bane tactics, it made me feel as if they didn’t really care. And, in the end, I found myself crossing the line in disgust because I couldn’t put up with the bullying, pedantic behavior.

So, here I find myself again. The UFCW has authorized a strike. The reality is looming and I have to ask myself the same question: would I cross the picket line? The answer is a qualified “no”. Although Albertsons is my favorite market, I find I have many other choices nowadays. When I go to my mainstay, Trader Joes, I’m like a kid in a candy store. They offer so much more than Two Buck Chuck. And, there are a lot more places. Henry’s World Food Market and our old standby, Stater Bros., which still has, in my opinion, the best meat counter in town. All these options make it just that much easier to shop elsewhere and support the rank-and-file worker who has seen their pay and benefits decline.

Federal mediators, recognizing history of a strike that cost the stores over $1.5 billion dollars and the workers an unknown amount in wages and benefits, have ordered the parties back to the table for “intensive” negotiations by August 29th. I hope, for everyone’s sake, that both sides will be able to come to agreement. It is sad to say, but the grocery workers will never be the same as they were ten years ago, when being a “checker” was a great job with good benefits. They have taken too many hits and I foresee they will take a few more, even if they can work out a deal. The alternative is to strike. But, if they choose that route, they need to educate their striking members on the importance of standing tall in the face of adversity, regardless of the length of time or the number of customers who will choose, inevitably, to cross the line.