I get the feeling that some of our prosperous institutions and second-home owners here are engaged in a race to the bottom to see who can be top Scrooge.
A wealthy East End school announces it will cease paying salaried employees for their 30-minute lunch period. This amounts to a 6-percent pay cut. A country club in sound financial condition awards a 2-percent pay raise to its staff, then, pleading poverty, reduces its health insurance contribution by an amount that surpasses the salary increase.
Often, employers offer no health insurance. This is apparent during winter, when second homes are usually inactive and their immigrant employees, many of whom have become U.S. citizens, return to their homelands to get medical and dental treatment at about one-fifth the price for comparable care here. During work months they forbear treatment or resort to hospital emergency rooms. The Affordable Care Act will help, but with still-high premiums, coverage gaps, and absences of employer participation, health care in the Hamptons will remain very expensive.
Some of these health care travelers serve as domestics in the homes here of individuals on the Forbes 400 richest Americans list. While they are working — and perhaps enduring infected teeth or threatening coronary and pulmonary conditions — they might be taking care of a presidential-aspirant houseguest who has established a reputation as a supporter of universal health insurance and who is here amidst the Hamptons treasure trove to network for campaign contributions.
Do we, as East Hampton citizens, stay out of this? Do we believe that houseguest decorum prohibits guests from scrutinizing their hosts’ generosity to the hired help and, perhaps, that we mustn’t intrude anyway because the presence of wealth and fame here spins off into local jobs and business we need?
Or, as I prefer, do we decide a candidate must enquire — that there is rightful public concern about the conjoining of big money and high office and that aspirants to such things as our presidency should demand to know what their billionaire hosts are doing about their employee health benefits before blessing them with the kudos of their presence?
The town board, which I believe cares about all East Hampton residents and finds itself appropriating funds for services engendered by shortfalls of health care coverage, can get involved by urging the town’s wealthiest employers to examine and if need be recalibrate their stances on employee health benefits.
The board might induce such a reassessment via a nonbinding resolution, a step without legal effect but capable of exerting significant moral force. There would be devils in the details, but differences can be worked out, as they must be with any legislation. I would like to see the resolution cover all U.S. citizens and legal residents working on the books here for any school, business, or part-time or full-time East Hampton resident with a net worth of $20 million or more.
Such a resolution would be less rare and radical than it might seem. Municipal legislatures, both conservative and liberal, frequently employ them to exhort action by their citizenry or the state or federal government. In 2013 Mount Hope, N.Y., passed a resolution urging repeal of Governor Cuomo’s SAFE Act, which has expanded state control of assault weapons. In 2012, the New York City Council passed a resolution opposing corporate personhood.
What could be more appropriate than the Town of East Hampton, site of the second gilded age in full flower, urging its year-round and seasonal residents with 8 to 11-figure wealth to make sure their employees needn’t work months without access to needed health care?
The workers I spoke with for this article are my neighbors. They have each been on their job for years. They take great pride in providing for their families and giving their employers a good day’s work. We used to call them the backbone of the country. Now, we allow our political and financial leaders to nickel and dime them. It is demoralizing. It disrupts and destroys families. It shatters our nation’s unity. And it is vulgar.
Richard Rosenthal is a veteran of the Great Depression and World War II.