Bonkers Clothing Co., which manufactures clothing for children and juniors, has a health care program, but the company only offers the plan to its 12 management-level employees. The 28 workers who cut fabric and ship garments are not covered.
“Under the policy that we currently have, it was just totally prohibitive,” said company Vice President Jim Garbell.
But that may soon change, both for Bonkers’ line workers and thousands of other garment-industry employees throughout Los Angeles County who do not have health insurance.
The California Fashion Association, a trade group representing about 200 companies, has begun offering a health insurance program for employees of its member companies and their subcontractors. Member companies of other associated trade groups such as the Garment Contractors Association and the Textile Association of Los Angeles also will have access to the program.
More than 2,500 workers statewide, as well as their spouses and children, are expected to be enrolled by November. The vast majority will be in L.A. County, where 115,000 of the state’s 185,000 apparel-industry workers are located.
“By this time next year, I am guessing we will have 9,000 or 10,000 (statewide),” said Jennifer Blackwell of Hesperia-based Blackwell & Associates Insurance & Financial Services, which is administering the plan.
That number, while significant, is still low compared with the total number of apparel-industry workers in the L.A. area and in the state. Apparel is the county’s largest manufacturing sector.
Many of those workers are paid minimum wage and receive few or no benefits, such as health insurance.
The aim is to provide affordable health, dental, long-term disability, life, and accidental death and dismemberment insurance. Under the new plan, a company can supply health insurance to an individual employee for as little as $95.21 a month. The company can foot the entire bill, pay part of it, or pass the entire cost on to the employee.
The plan includes insurance provided through a number of health, dental, life and other insurers, including Kaiser Permanente, Inter Valley Health Plan and Delta Dental Plan of California.
Garbell of Bonkers said the cost of insuring workers through the CFA’s program is significantly lower than the cost through Blue Shield of California, Bonkers’ current provider.
“This is about 60 percent of the price we’re paying for Blue Shield,” he said, adding that he has not yet decided whether to sign up for the program. But, he acknowledged, “it’s an excellent price.”
Mark Lesser, president of Barbara Lesser, an L.A.-based womenswear designer, and chairman of the CFA’s community development committee, said the new program also allows workers to move from one company to another without losing their insurance.
“Their insurance can go with them because they will be offered it through the association rather than through their employer,” he said.
Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, said the plan is being offered in part to counteract the industry’s negative image.
“We are being pointed at as a sweatshop industry an industry that doesn’t care about its workers,” she said. “This is the most effective, immediate thing we can do making health care affordable and available for every worker in the garment industry.”
Blackwell said about 70 percent of CFA members already offer some form of insurance to at least some of their workers. Where the program has the most potential, she said, is at companies that do contract and subcontract work. Those smaller companies, which sew garments and cut fabric, are less likely to offer insurance to their employees, who also tend to be paid less.
Joe Rodriguez, executive director of the Garment Contractors Association of Southern California, estimates that only about 1 percent of the 200 companies in his organization offer health insurance to their employees.
“The contractors can’t afford any additional costs right now because of the market forces at play,” Rodriguez said. “The prices from the manufacturers don’t allow them to offer benefits. They’re fighting for survival in many respects. For them to pay the premium on behalf of the employees is out of the question, really.”
Rodriguez said that even though his association is informing its members of the health plan, he doubts many will offer to foot a portion of the health insurance bill. Moreover, Rodriguez said many companies might not even tell their employees about the plan.
“It comes to, ‘Am I raising aspirations here, am I raising expectations of the employees?’ I would ask myself some of these questions,” he said.
Blackwell said her goal is to educate garment contractors about the new plan, and ultimately enroll workers who have never been offered health insurance before.
But her first priority, she said, is to attract members of the CFA who may already have some insurance, but who want to expand it or get it at a lower cost. That, she said, will provide the program with the funding it needs to market itself to contractors.
“In order to get to those people, I need the other groups,” she said. “My main goal in this is to get to people who are Spanish-speaking, who have five or six children who have never been immunized.”