As commissioner of labor I am acutely aware that Labor Day is much more than a long weekend, a day off, and a chance to enjoy the traditional “end of summer” cookout.
Its origins rest with “workingmen’s holidays” organized in the late 1800s by people like Peter J. McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor who urged setting aside a day to honor those, “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Maine officially established Labor Day as a legal holiday in 1891 and three years later Congress set aside the first Monday of September as a national holiday.
Much has changed over the years. Technology and globalization have shifted the types of jobs in our economy and the way work is done. Labor laws provide for minimum wage and overtime protections, prohibit child labor and provide for unemployment benefits when workers get laid off. And safety regulations have reduced the number of work-related injuries and illnesses for people on the job.
But 105 years later, it is as important as ever to take time to recognize the daily contributions of women and men who show up to work each day to provide services that we take for granted or produce goods that better our quality of life and generate wealth in our economy.
However, this year, many of our family, friends and neighbors may not be going back to work on Tuesday. Although most suspect that the worst of the recession is behind us, the past year has been tough for workers in every corner of the world. Here in Maine, thousands of our neighbors have lost jobs this year.
For many, the loss of a job has also meant the loss of health insurance. According to recently published numbers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71 percent of U.S. private sector workers have access to such plans at work. Nearly three-quarters of those who have the option of coverage at work take it. Though these plans make health coverage somewhat affordable for many working class families, the major drawback to our nation’s reliance on employer sponsored plans is the impact on those who have lost their jobs.
Workers who are laid off or have to leave their jobs because of a serious medical condition have few options in terms of health coverage. Plans on the private insurance market simply cost too much and are often out of reach to anyone with a pre-existing condition. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act law provides an opportunity for laid-off workers to continue coverage under an employer plan, if they pay the entire cost of the policy. For Maine families the average COBRA policy costs $1,161 a month and consumes 96 percent of income coming in from unemployment benefits.
Lack of insurance or underinsurance has its own costs to families and the economy as a whole. It is estimated that 62 percent of bankruptcies are linked to medical bills and 1.5 million families lose their homes due to medical expenses each year.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included a tax credit for unemployed workers that would reduce the cost of COBRA to 35 percent of the premium. That action was a step in the right direction but that provision is set to expire at the end of this year.
Maine has also made progress in improving health access through Dirigo Health and insurance laws protecting people from being denied coverage because they are sick. But the health care crisis is a national issue that warrants a more comprehensive solution.
In the Maine tradition, workers have been resilient and creative in riding out this recession. With fewer financial resources for groceries, many have turned to gardening to stretch their food bill. They are focusing on energy efficiency and turning down their thermostats to conserve fuel. But when it comes to health care, there are no easy options for the uninsured.
On this Labor Day, let’s do more than have a picnic. We know many of our friends and neighbors are struggling right now due to job loss, and we need to ensure their voices and experiences are considered in the national health care debate. Workers need affordable alternatives for health coverage, and they need it now.
Laura Fortman is the commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.