Speech by Erika Simard at the Vermont Workers' Center dinner
April 27, 2008
Old Labor Hall, Barre, VT
Hello, thanks for joining us here tonight. Even though I feel I’ve told my story a thousand times, I will continue to tell it until I make a difference. I started at Specialty Filaments in 1983 at the age of 18. As a union member, I had good pay and excellent benefits. Even though to an 18 year old, the only benefit that was worthy was my vacation time, the rest made up the benefit package. I made a lot of friends and I became pretty vocal on policies and procedures, but it wasn’t until the mid 90’s that I decided I wanted to become an active member and I joined the executive board. Over the years we became a really strong, active union, I worked my way up and I floated between Vice President and President a few times. In 2001, after fighting and winning a good contract, and feeling like I was on top of the world, I had a heart attack, I was 36 years old. At that point I was thankful for my health insurance; it’s funny how our views change as we age.
In May 2005, Specialty Filaments announced they would be closing the doors in their Burlington plant in a few months. Thank god we had negotiated in a few contracts prior, that if there was ever a closing they would negotiate severance pay with us. So our business agent from Massachusetts came up and our executive board met with the company to negotiate our severance pay. They offered us only two weeks pay and said that was all they could do, their would be no negotiations. We refused, we had dedicated workers that gave over 30 years of service, there was no way we were going to accept two weeks pay for them or anyone else.
We contacted the Workers Center, whom we had established a little contact with over the years and asked for help. We knew what we wanted, but we weren’t sure how to go about getting it. With guidance from James and support from everyone else at the Workers' Center, we fought back. It was an incredible fight that even took us to Boston to rally the companies corporate headquarters. We contacted our customers to let them know what was going on and we held numerous press conferences and even got Bernie's office involved. We spoke on the radio and television and stood in solidarity in numerous rallies outside the plant letting the community know how we were being treated. We made a lot of noise, but we didn’t make a lot of negotiation progress until we decided to put a work injury flier together. We wanted to bring attention to the fact that our workers had suffered numerous permanent injuries, all for the sake of profit ... and that was our bargaining tool.
Again the company refused to budge when we tried to negotiate; so on our way out the door, we put the flier in front of their face and told them it would be going out at 6 pm tonight in all of their neighborhoods unless they agreed to negotiate a fair severance. It worked, an hour later they were calling us to make sure it didn’t go out and agreed to negotiate. I was kinda sad we didn’t get a chance to use it; it was a beautiful piece of work thanks to the folks at Seven Days that helped us design it. But at the same time it was very graphic and showed some terrible statistics and injuries which is sad but common in factory work. As a result of the flier, we finally won a decent settlement. It wasn’t the best but it was better than a paltry two weeks. I finished my last day of work on September 24 2005, and then it hit me, I had no health insurance and I needed it to live. I inquired about state help and they told me that if I was offered COBRA I had to exhaust those benefits before the state could help me. I take a ton of different medicines, so I called to see how much it would cost to purchase them, I found out my 10 or so different meds would cost 1,800 dollars a month! I was in tears, I literally could not afford to live. I had no choice but to pay the 400 dollars a month for Cobra out of my 1200 I received from unemployment. I had to move back home with my mother just to be able to pay for health insurance because I couldn’t live on 800 dollars a month. After my unemployment ran out and I was unable to find a decent paying job with health insurance, I decided to take advantage of the TRA which is the trade readjustment allowance. It’s a federal grant that has paid for my college, because I lost my job due to our countries trade policies, and at the same time it continues to pay me the wages I had been receiving through unemployment. Even though my weekly pay is distributed through our states unemployment office, it’s actually allocated from the federal fund.
As time went by, I stayed involved with the Workers' Center when ever I could even though I had a busy college schedule. I kept in touch with James about my cobra struggles and how unfair it was for anyone to have to pay those kinds of rates. Eventually the Middlebury plant shut down and the company went bankrupt, when that happened my COBRA was cancelled, two months earlier than it should have been and I was not prepared.
I was beside myself; I didn’t know what to do. I applied for VHAP and I was denied. The allotted figure for help is $1,169 dollars a month, I made 40 dollars too much! I can remember my case worker telling me that, and I was in disbelief, I said but you don’t understand, I have heart disease! She said “Well I’m sorry, but If we gave insurance out for every little sniffle, the state would be in a huge deficit” I said, every little sniffle? I have heart disease, I need insurance. She said, “I’m sorry, we can’t help you” and hung up the phone. At that point I just went numb, I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I kept running the figures over and over again in my head, 1,800 for medication, 1,200 for income and all I could do was cry and think “I'm gonna die”. So I called James in tears asking if he had any ideas as to what I could do.
He made some phone calls and got me in touch with Bernie's office. Phil Fiermonte tried to get me into the health center in Richford so I could get medicine and another woman from Bernie's office did some digging into my TRA grant. It was so nice to have support from caring people, James even offered to coordinate a sit-in at the VHAP office and to not leave until they gave me health insurance. My light at the end of the tunnel came when it was uncovered that my TRA money came from federal sources and therefore could not be counted as a state income. It was a loop hole in our system that no one at the agency knew of, but the woman in Bernie's office uncovered it. So I was given VHAP and it has still been an ongoing struggle. Each time I get a new caseworker at DCF, my VAHP gets canceled, so I have to call and explain the circumstances over and over again. In the end, I feel I am very lucky, but not everyone has the same results. No one should have to go through what I went through. Losing a job should not mean you lose your health or your home, and that was the choice left before me.
The reason I am here with you tonight is to announce our new Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign! Under this title, Healthcare Is A Human Right, we will build a statewide action network capable of winning and building a real democracy, where we are organized enough and strong enough to make all policymakers do what is right. Here’s the real exciting part of this announcement, one year and a couple days from now, on May 1st 2009, there is going to be an enormous rally at the State House, with thousands of Vermonters demanding healthcare as a basic human right. That day is a Friday, and the rally is going to be in the middle of the day. We are going to ask everyone who is sick of the current healthcare crisis and insecurity that we all face, to call in sick that day, take a sick day, a community health day, and join us at the State House. Some business owners who agree with us will decide to shut their doors that day and join their employees in Montpelier. Busses and car pooling caravans will come from every part of the state, to declare Healthcare Is A Human Right. Many politicians say that they agree with this, that it is good in theory, but its not politically possible. With this historic rally and the new network of working families that pull it off, we will change what is politically possible. We will make the healthcare crisis, a crisis for politicians, by mobilizing thousands of Vermonters to join us. Throughout our History, Vermonters have been known for being front runners, so lets show them what we can do!