By ALICIA WALLACE
Last week, Super Value president Rupert Roberts said the company will no longer provide enhanced maternity costs. The company practices a form of self-insurance, setting money aside to cover medical costs rather than engaging an insurance company which could cost more money. It has decided to discontinue maternity payments it makes which are on top of the statutory requirement in order to have more money available for catastrophic illness and life-saving treatment.
Roberts claimed this decision came as a result of the increase in pregnancies over the past 24 months. He added that covering the expenses is “no problem”, but the company wants to keep its reserve big. He then said he hoped this change in policy would impact employees’ sexual behaviour, noting that some had been caught having sex at work. He suggested that young women — whom he referred to as “girls” — specifically want to work at Super Value to benefit from the maternity coverage. This is a preposterous assertion as maternity coverage does not come close to the cost of having a child, but if it is a strategy for reducing the initial cost, some might call it family planning.
The public debate sparked by Roberts’ comments zeroed in on a number of concerns, but there are others that did not get the same attention. His comments leave quite a bit to be unpacked.
Compensation is not a gift
Far too much of the conversation about Super Value discontinuing coverage of maternity expenses frames it as a gift or a kindness. Health care is essential and, aside from public health services, insurance is the only way it is possible for many people. Health insurance is also expensive, especially for women. When asked why health insurance for women costs more, insurance agents say it is because women give birth. It is assumed women will, at some point, become pregnant and give birth. Not only is that assumption made, but it is built into health insurance plans to ensure those expenses can be covered, at least in part. This is considered essential, from prenatal to postnatal.
Most of us do not work for fun. Some of us are fortunate and innovate enough to enjoy what we do for a living, but compensation is a part of the deal. Employers offer compensation packages. These packages can include money, vacation time, flexible schedule, incentives, a company vehicle, and yes, you have probably guessed it — health insurance.
Employers are not always able to offer a salary that adequately compensates for employee output, so there are other components in the package. In some cases, employees can even take study leave, bring their children to work, or access special offers and discounts. Most employers, however, include health insurance in their compensation packages. Sometimes employees contribute to the group plan, and sometimes the employer covers the cost. This is not extraordinary, and it is not an act of benevolence. It is earned.
Super Value has not been doing its employees a favour; health coverage is a part of the package because the salaries alone are not sufficient compensation.
Right to have sex as adults
It has been said that sex is a national pastime, right up there with drinking alcohol. This is not exclusive to Bahamians. It is not a special fact about young people. It is not limited to a particular gender. People have sex because it feels good. Consenting adults have the right to enjoy sexual activity. At times, people choose to have sex in inappropriate places for a range of reasons, from not having access to a private space to looking for an extra thrill. It happens.
It is understandable for an employer to be upset about employees having sex on company property. It is, however, ridiculous for an employer to bring that issue to the public. If it is true that employees are having sex — and we must keep in mind we only have Roberts’ word for this — there are better, more effective ways to deal with it. There should be a conversation with the staff which may be accompanied by new policies and consequences. These policies and consequences, however, do not need to include public lambasting and shaming or the loss of compensation owed to all employees.
Again, it is important to note we do not know what Roberts said is true. If it is, he has a strange way of dealing with the issue. I find it difficult to believe the behaviour would be repeated to the extent he suggested if it had been appropriately addressed internally. Even if employees have been behaving this way, it is unacceptable to punish them or try to change their behaviour by altering their compensation packages and publicly sharing the details of the situation. It is also paternalistic of him to suggest the loss of maternity coverage might stop them from having sex.
People have sex. It does not mean they want to have children, or want to benefit from “free” maternity health care. It means they want to have sex. All Roberts needs to concern himself with is ensuring sexual activity does not happen at work.
Creating an unsafe work environment
It is clear from the conversations about these comments that Roberts has created an unsafe environment for the women working at Super Value. In particular, cashiers are very visible as they are on the frontline and have the most interaction with customers. Men have shared their plans to go and “get a Super Value woman”.
In a misogynistic society where sexual education is lacking, rape culture is seen as normal and sexual harassment is a common occurrence, it is irresponsible to publicly share a narrative about the women working in the stores. At the very least, Super Value needs to make a public apology to its employees — specifically the women — as well as reverse its change to the compensation package and increase security at its stores for the protection of the women it has made particularly vulnerable.
Sexual education opportunity
It is no secret sexual education is either non-existent or woefully lacking in most schools. This has always been the case, so there are thousands of adults who do not have critical information. Now is a good time to do some research, visit a medical professional, or get other resources to learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights.
It is an excellent time for Super Value to bring in professionals to talk to staff, conduct HIV testing, give information on STD testing and offer male and female condoms.
With its large reserve and the amount of money it stands to save since it has cut maternity coverage, the company can certainly afford to pay non-profit organisations for a few hours of work. Make it a community event. Invite the general public to visit booths, get free condoms, learn the correct way to store, open and put on condoms and engage with sex educators.
The company made a big mistake, but should not ignore the opportunity that now exists. There is a lesson for everyone to learn.