and yes, we have to talk about health insurance

Eva Murray: Maine, where it’s perfectly normal to be self-employed

Sun, 10/29/2017 - 10:30am

MATINICUS — When I was a kid, one year during what these days would be called middle school, my class was herded into a room for a session of what was pathetically termed “group guidance.” The teacher-slash-counselor meant well. She was there to begin the process of encouraging us 12-year-olds to think about careers, or, from the way she addressed us, to at least think about earning our keep, and preferably not through a life of crime.

I remember her words. “When you grow up, you will each need to get a job.”

I also remember what was lacking, that being any discussion whatsoever of art, or learned professions, or building trades, or first-responding of any kind, or trucks or boats or bakeries or brickyards or anything tangible. It was just “get a job.” We were to be good citizens, making our livings working for a boss.

Being rather naïve, I suppose, in the educational standards directed toward the unfortunate regulars assigned to low-expectation schools, I raised my hand. “But we can’t all just get jobs working for somebody else. Some of us will have to start businesses in order for there to be jobs.”

I was no kind of troublemaker in those days. My big mouth had yet to develop and I didn’t mean to agitate. The end-of-class buzzer rang, and never have I seen a teacher so relieved. Truly, she was “saved by the bell.”

My parents were self-employed at the time, in a business which they had just started and which was ultimately to fail, but of course I wouldn’t have known that back when I was subverting “group guidance.” My dad had also been a piano teacher. My grandmother in South Thomaston ran a small business, a campground which she had started in the 1960s. My grandfather was a lobster fisherman and prior to that had owned an automotive repair shop. I never knew my other grandfather in Brooklyn, the one who came to this country as a little kid after having walked across eastern Europe, but as I understand it he also had a small business, and he kept his family fed.

I was surrounded by self-employed people. It was — as far as I had seen it — associated with long hours, could be trying to family life, and there were no guarantees.

My college summer job was a self-employment gig involving a lot of pie. The man I would marry is a self-employed electrician, as was his father. Most of our neighbors on Matinicus Island, being commercial fishermen, are self-employed. Those who aren’t lobster boat captains, or “independent contractor” sternmen, are generally carpenters, or artists, or make their living doing an assortment of things. One neighbor is at once a part-time attorney, lobsterman, and singer-songwriter, and his wife has a handmade soap company. My mom is a self-employed accountant, and she now runs that ancestral campground. My sister’s dad is a self-employed logger who used to have a small trucking company. This is Maine; being self-employed is completely normal.

Often, Maine workers take on different types of employment depending upon the time of year. We make wreaths, we go sternman, we do maintenance for summer people, we cut firewood, we bake, we pound nails, we repair machinery, we make art. Our tax forms are absurdly complicated, although considering our unremarkable middle-class incomes, they shouldn’t have to be.

We augment our self-employment incomes, or balance out the seasonal instability thereof, with part-time employment. We drive school buses, we teach adult ed., we sell tools, we do taxes, we wait tables. We plow snow, mow grass, and paint — and anybody who has done those things understands it is all-out-and-go-like-hell when the weather dictates, or no income when the weather does not cooperate. We work per diem as EMTs, nurses, substitute teachers, and other essential things. We respond to fires.

On the side we raise crops, tend chickens, walk dogs, babysit, run an excavator, and drive Grammie to her appointments. Maybe not even our own Grammie.

Yet with all this skill and industry and work ethic and community-mindedness, we must endure the insult of being uninsured, or underinsured, and the indignity of those holier-than-thou men in suits, who have never had to worry and probably never gotten their hands dirty, who prattle on about how “most people get their health insurance through their employer.”

Most people where?

The Powers That Be seem to think workers who own small businesses and operate one-man shops, who labor at multiple part-time jobs because that’s what is available, who make the art and fight the fires whether paid or not, and who do the low-paying but essential jobs our communities badly need are an anomaly, an exception, the odd-man-out.

They seem to think we are statistically insignificant, that there aren’t enough of us to be part of the discussion. Or, that “average Americans” either have steady, full-time work--and get adequate insurance through their job--or are somehow not holding up their end. They dare to suggest that they speak for the American working person, but they seem to know little about the 21st Century working person. I wonder if they are still imagining Detroit in the 1950’s, or maybe Fred Flintstone’s “Bedrock.” In any case, it isn’t our reality. They seem to think that “business owner” equates to “tycoon,” that “low income” means “not very busy, probably lazy” and that anybody so motivated can have a full-time, year-round, lifelong career in a stable industry which provides benefits.

But that is not how it usually works in Maine.

Actually, I only know a couple of people who get their insurance through their employer. I can name them. Most of my neighbors and relatives, including the highly educated, are self-employed or seasonally employed at various things, and many scramble each year to find and afford health insurance coverage. As an EMT, I know for a fact that some go without, because they have told me so.

This is not, “Oh, poor us; we want a free ride.” We’re making a living. But we aren’t, as a rule, getting rich, and the unsubsidized health insurance market is often out of reach for the self-employed, the owners of tiny businesses, the freelancers, and those who hold down multiple part-time jobs. In addition to cost, the bureaucratic burden is no small hurdle for some, and the fact that health insurance is a political football brings with it an unconscionable level of uncertainty year-to-year as to what we’ll have for coverage.

To have health insurance priced in the stratosphere to begin with, and then to suggest that those who do not happen to work for a company which offers coverage as a benefit are somehow less deserving, somehow not doing what they should, is patently unethical.

Health insurance is not optional. The argument that a nationwide, simplified system isn’t a priority because “a lot of people don’t want health insurance” doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Hardly anybody short of Bill Gates could truly finance all of their potential medical needs out-of-pocket. That idea is a joke, and a mean one. Health insurance is not like a luxury automobile, “something nice if you can afford it, but not for everybody.” No; it’s more like a roof over our heads.

There is also the sad reality of talented people stuck in tedious, uninspired jobs where they do not offer their real skills and creativity to the community, but feel trapped “just working for health insurance.”

This country must find a mechanism to offer universal health insurance. It must be complete, affordable to all, rock-steady from year to year, and not tied to one’s employment. Nobody, not one single American, is undeserving, least of all the young fellow who gets up at 3:00 a.m. to plow out your driveway in the winter and who never knows how much he’s going to make each year. Snowplow guy should have the same certainty of coverage should he be sick or injured, or at least the same ease of access to insurance, as a 30-year career executive in a large firm where the HR department handles all of that stuff. To suggest otherwise is indefensible.

Maine, and our country, should be proud of its self-employed workers, and of the multitaskers and freelancers who work hard providing valuable services without employee benefits or particularly generous paychecks. The owner of the corner store, the small farmer, the repairman, and the musician are in a sense demonstrating the American ideal. Yet our system treats us—I count myself among them-- as though our contributions are unimportant, and we should seriously consider going to work in the mill (as though that was still a real option in Maine anyway,) or as middle managers doing something boring we cannot explain in 25 words or less. I recall the words of that hapless group guidance teacher; it sure looks as though someone would really prefer we all work for a boss.

We are struggling with a mess of a system, and it appears to be just growing messier.

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