Books / Health / Leaders & People / Politics

Health Care – Fresh and Honest: A Letter from Carla and Barbara of Politics and Prose

This morning I received an e-mail from Politics and Prose a very popular bookstore in Washington, DC. It is owned by two women who have created a successful business model in a fragile world of book selling. In their event publicity e-mail they included this letter on the current national discussion on health care. It is fresh and honest. Something to consider. Following is what they wrote:

We are following the debate on health care with interest. We are not impressed by those who claim to speak on behalf of small business and want to exempt small business from any responsibilities for health care.

We started our business in September 1984 with two employees — us. As we began to add employees in 1985 and 1986, it became apparent that we had to have health insurance. By 1987 we were carrying some insurance for ourselves and our six or seven employees. We simply believed that was the cost of doing business.

We didn’t want employees to refuse to see a doctor when they were ill because of cost. We didn’t want employees to worry about broken limbs or other emergency treatment. We wanted and continue to want a work environment where the staff feel assured that their lives will go forward smoothly.

Sure, it costs. We estimate now that that the cost of health insurance for each employee is about $1/hour for the business. Retail does not pay a lot. It’s fun and gratifying to work in a bookstore, but nobody will be well off. We hope that our employees will stay in the job for more than two years if possible. Indeed about a third of our staff has been with us for more than 5 years. Employee retention is a way that we provide better service for customers. You see familiar faces; the staffers are confident about their knowledge and abilities. However, skilled employees won’t stay if they can’t depend on health insurance.

The cost of books is roughly 56% of the sales. Out of the remaining 44% that we earn, we have to pay rent, salaries, and supplies. Politics and Prose also pays approximately 75% of the health insurance premiums for its 50-some employees. We don’t regard any of these costs as optional if we want to operate a good business – as well as one that gives pleasure to ourselves, to our employees, and to our customers. Without pleasure, we don’t see the point to our work.

We do have some choices in running a business. For instance, many times we have been asked to expand — to Arlington, to Falls Church, downtown. Expansion is one way of making more money by spreading some of the basic costs over more business income. Each time we have resisted because we personally don’t want to be in another location. We both enjoy our store in Chevy Chase, and we cannot open another store without paying a lot of attention to it. These are our choices. They are not everybody’s choices.

However, no business should have a choice about whether or not to provide health care for its employees. Granted — maybe a one or two year waiver while the business gets started. Granted — maybe a certain minimum number of employees — five, ten, but certainly no more. We gladly would be in a pool. We gladly would pay the government and let them provide basic insurance. Fundamentally, we believe that health insurance is a right for workers, and we want to help promote universal coverage.


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