The Lost Penny

New Orleans hospitality workers: New health care initiative a ‘timid’ but ‘good’ first step

By Emily Woodruff

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

August 9, 2019

The hospitality industry in New Orleans brings in $8.7 billion per year, according to a report commissioned by the city in 2018. But while the industry thrives, many of the city’s cooks, servers and bartenders must walk a financial tightrope trying to find affordable health care.

Jeff Rebackoff, 27, a server and food runner who got insurance through Medicaid earlier this year, constantly worries about what would happen if he starts making too much money to keep his insurance.

“If I do lose this, then how can I pay for therapy or my medications? I always have that fear in the back of my mind,” he said.

Hospitality workers in New Orleans make an average of $22,069 annually, including tips, according to the Data Center, an independent research organization in southeast Louisiana. Medicaid cuts individuals off at an annual income of $16,764.

Only about 30% of restaurants nationally provide any form of health insurance, leaving many workers without affordable options.

In response to demands from the industry, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., which is largely funded by the city’s hotel room occupancy tax, has rolled out a marketing initiative aimed at connecting hospitality workers with existing health care services. The program, called Healthy Hospitality, is being offered in partnership with 504 HealthNet, a network of clinics and hospitals in the city that provide free or low-cost health care.

The initiative includes a new website and a dedicated employee to help connect hospitality workers to care.

“We recognized there’s a big lack of awareness,” said Dani DiPietro, 504 HealthNet’s program manager. “The whole program is to elevate the awareness about community health centers and services they provide.”

The marketing company hopes to add a Spanish version of the site soon and continue to raise awareness. Around $120,000 has been committed from the NOTMC.

“We’re just a small piece of the solution,” said Mark Romig, president and CEO of the NOTMC. “We felt like this was something that we had control over that could help.”

But members of New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance say the initiative doesn’t go far enough.

“It is a good first step. But it is a timid one,” said Ashlee Pintos, who has worked in the restaurant industry for 10 years and spoke on behalf of the alliance.

Pintos has accessed the clinics the NOTMC is publicizing — in fact, she used to volunteer at one. But when she needed a CT scan, she was left with a bill for around $10,000 from University Medical Center.

The initiative doesn’t address what happens when hospitality workers need care for serious conditions, she said.

“That does nothing for emergencies and long-term treatment you can’t afford,” said Pintos, a bartender. (She and others who both supported and criticized the initiative would not say where they work, citing fear of retaliation from their employers.)

During the busy tourist season, in the spring and around Mardi Gras, many workers make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. But during the summer months, Pintos said, it’s common for managers to cut workers’ hours if business is slow, making it hard to estimate their overall monthly income.

The alliance wants at least some of the hotel tax revenue directed to a health care fund for hospitality workers. The 16.35% tax on room charges in Orleans Parish will generate about $200 million in 2019, according to a report by the Bureau of Governmental Research. Currently, 75.5% of that, or $150.9 million, goes to groups that support tourism, professional sports or conventions. The city gets 9.5%, or $18.9 million, for general municipal purposes.

“That tax money is generated by our labor,” Pintos said. “The city could set up a fund. It could be disseminated.”

Ultimately, the group would like to see restaurants provide health care for their employees. But in a state where the minimum wage has been stagnant at $7.25 for the last decade and tipped employees can be paid an hourly wage of $2.13, hospitality workers know that day may be a long way off.

“We definitely don’t believe anyone will hand us these things,” said Meg Maloney, a cook and restaurant worker who buses tables. “We believe workers in the city have to demand it.”

Rebackoff used 504 HealthNet to find a better health provider after a bad experience navigating the system on his own after moving to New Orleans from Shanghai.

“(They) made it easy to find health care that I needed that was high-quality and affordable enough,” he said. But he acknowledged that many in the industry would like to see a better solution.

“Hospitality workers are always striving toward getting insurance,” he said. “I’m not sure if (the new initiative) is enough, but I believe it’s a step in the right direction.”

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