S.F. moves to expand health care for thousands of airport workers, families

Thousands of workers at San Francisco International Airport were expected to see expanded health care benefits from their employers after an increase in coverage was unanimously approved by the city’s Board of Supervisors this week.

Sponsored by Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Shamann Walton, the legislation would require family health care for private-sector employees to meet a higher standard, at no cost to workers.

Employers can choose instead to contribute to a city-managed fund to cover health care expenses for workers and their families.

The new ordinance builds on the city’s 2001 Health Care Accountability Ordinance, which requires private-sector city contractors and tenants to provide certain health care benefits to workers. Since San Francisco owns the airport, it can impose rules like this on companies that operate there.

The legislation would cover groups including baggage handlers, security checkpoint workers, caterers, lobby agents and others. Some airline employees whose fixed job location is SFO would also be covered.

Labor advocates lobbied for the changes, saying that the plans currently offered to employees are not affordable and do not adequately cover families.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce opposed the ordinance. An October letter to the board from President and CEO Rodney Fong warned that it could cut into the finances of already struggling airlines.

“This industry saw a 70{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} decrease in business and tens of thousand of airline workers furloughed,” Fong wrote, referring to the airline industry. He also raised the specter of increased costs worsening that damage.

Potential exposure to the coronavirus also brought the issue to the fore.

“COVID-19 poses a new and unprecedented threat to the health of airport employees and to the city’s ability to safely and effectively operate the airport,” Mandelman said in a statement.

“For far too many Airport workers — the majority of whom are low wage, and many of whom live below the Bay Area poverty line — skyrocketing co-pays and deductibles and expensive family plans mean workers and their families regularly forego medical visits because they can’t afford to take on thousands of dollars in debt,” he added.

According to a city budget analysis and airport data, around 4,200 workers would be eligible for the family health care benefits. That would cost airlines, service providers and catering companies between $8.4 million and $24 million each year, depending on the health plan offered.

The second option of contributing to the city health care fund would result in annual costs of about $33 million for those companies if they chose that route.

Companies could also pass those increased costs on to the flying public in the form of slightly increased ticket prices. That could include any flight itinerary that includes SFO.

The ordinance is set to take effect 30 days after it is enacted, which would be after Mayor London Breed signs it, returns it unsigned or does not sign it within 10 days of when it passed Tuesday.

Breed could also veto the legislation, which would require eight supervisors to override. The legislation has eight sponsors and passed unanimously, making a veto unlikely.

Companies would then be given a period of 90 days that would extend into March to comply with the rules.

The legislation will also require high-quality benefits be extended to union catering workers at the airport and their families. They were previously exempt from minimum health care requirements for airport workers because of their collective bargaining agreement.

“I am risking my health to work during the pandemic, but my insurance is so expensive that I can’t afford treatment if I get infected with COVID-19,” said Pearl Li, a flight coordinator serving United Airlines at a catering company and a member of the Unite Here Local 2 union. Li lost her job during the early stages of the pandemic and has returned to work intermittently since then.

“My co-workers and I are so proud that after more than a year of fighting, we have finally won affordable health care,” Li said.

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice

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