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'Taking Care Of People, All People'

Susan Campbell

February 03, 2009

At Hartford's graceful state Capitol, senators and representatives know Juan Valenzuela by name. A big man with a big smile, he's a native of Peru who became an American citizen 12 years ago. He's proud of that. He also prides himself that he's supporting his family, but in a tanking economy, the first to slip under are the people closest to the water line.

In this case, that often means new citizens who've carved out lives for themselves and their families like Valenzuela, whose job is cleaning the Capitol.

Originally, this past Sunday was to have been the last day for Valenzuela and some 600 other state-contracted employees and their families to have health insurance. The employees are mostly janitorial staff who clean state buildings including, ironically enough, the offices of the people who pass laws in this state.

In fact, it was the quick action of those legislators that pushed the February end-date for the workers' insurance to July 1. For that, Valenzuela says, "Thank you, but ..."

The few months' grace is great, "but after July? What?" he says.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 1999, the state passed the Standard Wage Law to ensure a livable wage with health insurance, pensions, and the like to all contracted workers, those employees who work for companies that contract with the state, such as Valenzuela's cleaning company. The law requires 30 percent of the wage rate go toward benefits, but in the 10 years since the law's passage, health-care premiums alone have shot up 120 percent, says Kaiser Foundation, and 30 percent is insufficient to cover costs.

If the janitors, all members of union SEIU Local 32BJ, lose their insurance, roughly 350 children would most likely be coughed into the state's HUSKY insurance plan. The cost of covering, say, 400 under HUSKY is roughly $1.6 million, says the state Office of Fiscal Analysis.

Union members have met with the House labor committee to talk about a permanent fix for covering these families. They're hopeful, but something needs to be done, fast.

The policy that covers Felipe Trevitazzo, a native of Peru, also covers his wife and 7-year-old son. He cleans Bradley International Airport. His wife, who is diabetic, has no insurance at her part-time job. The thought of living without coverage nags at him and his co-workers, he said.

Malgorzata Majewski cleans the state law library. Her policy covers her family, including her husband and their two children. She has perfected telling her family's story quickly, so that busy legislators will listen.

Valenzuela has been at the Capitol for three years. He loves his job. He loves that Sen. Jonathan Harris recently called him into his office and promised to do what he could to help. As he sat recently at a table at his local union office, Valenzuela said he understands the economy is troubled and that insurance premiums are high, but ...

"This is the state of Connecticut," he said. "This is the Constitution State. We respect the Constitution. We have to give the example of taking care of people, all people."

He brought along his daughter, who was sitting on his lap snacking on an office doughnut. At age 4, RoseMarie is already a veteran of marches and protests.

"What do you want?" Valenzuela asked her quietly.

"Justice," came the little voice.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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