After months of pleas and protests by contracted workers in Broward County for higher pay, the county commission is expressing support for an increased living wage. But disagreements over a countywide minimum health insurance requirement have sucked away worker's joy about the raise.
Broward's commission is deadlocked over how much to force county contractors to pay for workers' health insurance. With the requirement currently at $1.60 per hour, some commissioners like Nan Rich agree with workers that it should increase to over $3.00. But other commissioners say such a raise would be too expensive for companies and the county.
"It’s a disaster," said Helene O'Brien of the labor union, 32 BJ SEIU, after a Broward commission meeting on Tuesday during which commissioners made little headway on the issue. "We are really hoping the county will do the right thing...which is getting that level up, so workers can access better quality health insurance."
Commissioners agree the living wage should rise from $12.30 per hour to $13.27 for contracted workers who receive health benefits from employers. What remains contested is how much the living wage should be for people who do not receive health benefits. The difference between the two wages equals how much companies allocate toward employees' health insurance costs.
Workers want the health insurance requirement to equal at least Miami-Dade's—$3.16 per hour. They note that Broward gives its own public employees $3.44 per hour.
On Tuesday, Rich, Broward Mayor Mark Bogen and commissioner Dale Holness supported increasing Broward’s requirement to about $3.50 per hour. Rich, a long advocate of raising wages, compromised with opponents by proposing a gradual health insurance raise over the next three years.
"People work so darn hard in our airport and our seaport and all these jobs and they deserve to have the same kind of healthcare that the people in this building deserve," she said.
But commissioners Steve Geller and Barbara Sharief said a steep increase in the health insurance minimum will hurt Broward's economy. Geller, who supports raising the requirement to $2.50, argued that an economic recession is looming and a large health insurance raise could hamstring Broward's future recovery.
Sharief added that the increase will force companies to charge higher ticket and service prices at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where many workers are contracted. She said contract employees may not deserve as much pay for health insurance because they don't have as many college degrees as county-paid workers like herself. Workers and union representatives in the audience gasped in response.
"I'm not saying it’s not worth giving them what they're asking for. I’m just saying you have to allow people in private industry to pay based on merit and based on qualification," she said.
At one point during Tuesday's meeting, Bogen said there was a 5-4 majority in favor of the higher health insurance increase. But that became less clear by the end of the session.
The commission will now continue considering the health insurance requirement before another meeting on the issue Dec. 11. Workers like Evans Philias say the disagreement among the commissioners makes them feel underappreciated.
Philias is a contracted employee at a Starbucks at the Fort Lauderdale airport. He said he cannot afford to add his wife to his healthcare plan because his job does not pay him enough for insurance.
"My wife, she has a serious medical condition," he said. "She needs surgery and we can’t afford to get her the surgery right now."