Charleston hospitality workers can’t pay for health care, so a clinic is offering it for free

Charleston’s hospitality workers struggle to pay for health care so often that a clinic catering to low-income patients on James, Johns, Folly and Wadmalaw islands has opened its doors to them.

The Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic began accepting downtown restaurant and hotel workers at its office on Johns Island after realizing just how few in the workforce have access to health care.

The idea took hold at a “Grey’s Anatomy”-themed trivia night put on by the Bay Street Biergarten to benefit the charity. Emily Workman, who manages human resources at the restaurant, asked whether her employees could go to the clinic.

Bay Street Biergarten does offer health insurance, Workman said, but can only make it work for its roughly 25 full-time employees. She worries about the part-timers never going to the doctor and not having insurance to protect them from a medical disaster.

“I really wanted to be able to offer an option that was affordable,” Workman said.

So the Barrier Islands medical clinic, which is totally free, is making its providers available to workers across the hospitality spectrum at fast-food franchises, fine dining establishments and hotels on Charleston’s peninsula.

The Charleston region employs about 53,000 hospitality and leisure workers, about 7,700 of whom work on the peninsula, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hospitality workers in the Charleston region make, on average, about $24,000 a year. Food preparation workers, servers and hotel clerks are paid slightly less than average, while maintenance workers tend to make a bit more at about $25,000 a year.

Because hospitality workers are often employed by small businesses, many do not have the option of employer-sponsored health insurance. In South Carolina, 17 percent of working-age adults lack health insurance, the seventh-worst rate in the country.

Some hospitality businesses in Charleston buy group plans. Others do not. For several years, rules laid out by the Affordable Care Act have required companies with 50 or more employees to carry plans. For smaller firms, it’s optional to offer the benefits.

About 11 percent of employers with fewer than 10 employees offer health insurance in South Carolina, according to data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Companies are generally more likely to buy group plans for their employees the more people work for them.

People working in the leisure and hospitality fields are some of the most likely to be uninsured, according to the federal agency.

“When you’re in, you just know that’s the way it is,” said Emily Tuten, general manager for The Daily cafes. “You know that we’re never going to have the benefits that the people in the tech industry or the government have.”

The Daily, which is part of the Butcher & Bee restaurant group, offers a health care plan and retirement savings option to its employees. Being part of a group of restaurants typically puts employees in a much better place for benefits, Tuten said, than smaller standalone restaurants.

But Tuten said that at the two Daily locations, which are located on Upper King Street and in the Gibbes Museum of Art, the employees who opt into the health care option are in the minority.

Some employees use benefits from a spouse, and others are young enough to still be on their parents’ insurance plans, she said, but others choose not to have the coverage because of the cost.

“It’s a significant expense, so some people want to keep that money in their pockets and hope that nothing happens,” said Tuten, who recently told all of The Daily’s employees about the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic program.

Workman said she and her husband Ryan, one of the Biergarten’s owners, have labored over picking the right health insurance plans for their employees. Selecting plans is difficult, and Workman said they are trying to give their employees more options, like dental and vision.

Options on the insurance marketplace have opened up somewhat, but the Workmans have seen prices increase year over year. It has only gotten harder. Indeed, fewer small employers in South Carolina have offered health insurance over the years.

Butcher & Bee owner Michael Shemtov said the cost of offering health care to their employees increased by 23 percent when they renewed last year.

And in the restaurant industry where profit margins are “razor thin,” he said, it’s become increasingly difficult to pay for.

Shemtov plans to roll out new benefits for employees, though, starting in January. The offerings would include a health and wellness benefit — that’s still in the planning phases, Shemtov said, but would reimburse employees for doing something like joining a yoga studio or a running club — and a maternity and paternity savings program.

“We have staff that started when they were in their 20s, rocking bandannas, and now they’re moms and dads or thinking about becoming parents,” Shemtov said.

Employees using the new parental benefits would set aside savings every paycheck. That money, up to a set cap, would be matched by the company. That way, Shemtov said, when they take time off, they have those funds to draw from and there wouldn’t be a set time when new parents have to return to work.

The Post and Courier
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