U.S. workers choose layoffs over losing health benefits

It appears U.S. employees are becoming increasingly cutthroat when it comes to preserving their health care benefits. A new survey says nearly half would prefer their employers lay off their coworkers rather than cut or eliminate their current health benefits. The survey also reveals employees are willing to take drastic actions, such as postponing a divorce or rushing into a marriage, to keep or obtain coverage.

The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America conducted the survey, which will be released later this week. It examines employee attitudes toward changing or losing health benefits in the midst of perhaps the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
When asked to choose between layoffs or losing health benefits if their employer had to take drastic action to stay in business, 46 percent chose layoffs while 44 percent opted to lose benefits. In fact, more full-time employees (52 percent) and more employees making more than $50,000 a year (54 percent) preferred layoffs to benefit reductions. The survey also says 57 percent of employees were willing to take a salary cut or give up a raise or bonus in order to maintain their current health benefits.

"It is surprising to see that nearly half of the U.S. workforce would rather have layoffs than cuts to their own benefits," said Guardian vice president of Group Life and Disability Insurance, Barry Petruzzi in a statement. He said employees who chose layoffs over cuts to benefits were anticipating that they would not be the ones let go, placing their ability to pay for health care costs above a fellow colleagues' need to feed their family by keeping a job.

"This underscores how much employees value their benefits," Petruzzi notes. "It also highlights the competitive nature of today's workforce."

Workers are willing to take such drastic measures to keep current benefits, even though there is mounting evidence that the cost of employer health insurance coverage has soared in recent years with no end in sight. On Tuesday, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report showing that the average premiums for company-sponsored health insurance for families has jumped 131 percent since 1999, rising from $5,791 a year to $13,375.

Other results from the Guardian survey underscored increased competition among employees -- 25 percent of full-time employees said they were afraid or know someone who was afraid to take time off from work. Some 10 percent of pregnant or ill employees had similar fears. These fears are in part the result of employers taking actions such as requiring longer hours, adding job responsibilities or implementing layoffs and furloughs in response to the spiraling economy, which has placed increasing pressure on workers.

Workers changed behavior to maintain benefits in other ways as well. Eight percent of survey respondents were also willing to postpone a divorce to preserve health benefits and another 11 percent were willing to accelerate marriage plans to obtain benefits.

Nearly two-thirds of workers also indicated a willingness to pay a combination of higher deductible and higher premium to keep their current coverage. Most employees would accept an increase of $1,000 a year for individual coverage, or $2,000 to cover a family. However, the report suggests that workers still don't fully understand the true cost of health care. About 71 percent significantly underestimated or didn't know the costs of individual health coverage in comparison to group coverage. Such lack of understanding about the true costs of health care by consumers will make passing health care reforms that bring down the cost of care much more difficult to enact.
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