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OPINION: Health Care Needed 

To thrive as a creative city, we need to find ways to provide affordable health insurance for artists and nonprofit employees.

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Nonprofits are full of passionate people who work hard, too often to the point of burnout, because it is exhilarating to do something we care deeply about. The benefit of nonprofit work is waking up every morning knowing that you’ll feel good about what you do and that your work will make someone’s life better.

But this work comes with sacrifices. Nonprofit employees are generally paid less than our for-profit counterparts. You may have heard of the 80-20 rule; that 80 percent of nonprofit spending should go directly to programs and only 20 percent to overhead. This illustrates the pervasive belief among funders — though the tide seems to be slowly changing — that charitable giving should not fund administrative capacity.

What this boils down to is the sentiment “we shouldn’t care for the people doing the work.”

The problem with this is that people do the work. People have families, bills and bodies that need health care. People’s ability to work for the causes they care about deeply is limited by the real-world necessity of providing for their own basic needs.

Almost 10 years ago, we started Studio Two Three with no financial resources. We borrowed equipment and worked service industry jobs to pay for our tiny studio. We have since grown considerably, moving to Scott’s Addition in 2015 and expanding programming to serve thousands of people each year. We now employ four full-time and two part-time employees — none of whom have benefits through the studio.

We believe that to build capacity, you have to invest in capacity. We don’t want to just be fair, we want to be competitive. Providing our employees with benefits and health care is a priority, but it is also a major challenge due to the reality of the health care system in our nation. I am angry about the state of health care in this country and frustrated at the dearth of health care options for small nonprofits.

All of our employees are currently insured through the Affordable Care Act with some level of subsidy. We’ve looked into small-group insurance plans hoping that they might provide a better alternative. What we’ve discovered is that these plans require the business to pay 50 percent of the premium cost and individual premiums increase by hundreds of dollars. The result is that the organization pays $15,000 a year in premiums and employees pay more for worse coverage. I cannot throw hard-earned funds away to provide insurance that is worse than what our employees have now.

Given this reality, the act, intended as an option for individuals to access comprehensive health care, is currently our best choice for health coverage. The Affordable Care Act has been hacked at and undercut, is confusing to use and all of the resources for educating people about it have been defunded by those who want to perpetuate a system that doesn’t prioritize people’s health.

Our best option is to provide a medical stipend to each employee based upon the deductible and predicted annual health care expense. Over the next six months we are working to raise the funds to provide medical stipends in 2020. I will continue to advocate for improved health care options with state officials and fight ongoing attempts to strip the health coverage that the act provides for millions of people. At Studio Two Three, we also provide educational opportunities for our 100-plus artist members to learn about their health care options as well as learn business skills through our Business for Creatives classes.

But, none of this is enough.     

Richmond is home to incredible, essential nonprofit organizations and businesses, all confronting the barriers inherent in providing fair and competitive compensation and benefits. This is not a hurdle that can be cleared by one organization working alone.

Richmond is now ranked among the Top 20 Most Vibrant Arts Communities in America, one of the Most Inspiring Art Scenes in America and the Best American Cities for Creatives. To live up to these accolades, we need to provide a better support network for our artists.

In my experience, individual artists are hit particularly hard by the challenge of procuring health care and career support. We can look to organizations like Assets for Artists in Massachusetts or New York’s Creative Capital as models for providing artists with robust, holistic support. It will take time and we will have to confront the reality that Virginia law is inherently unfriendly to workers. But we have to start somewhere.

Studio Two Three is all-in on supporting artists. We are all-in — and we need help.

I am asking for input, advice, resources and suggestions for partnerships to help create a mechanism for collectively providing business training, career support, and education on health insurance options for our growing community of artists right here in Richmond.

When this exists, we will really be a Best American City for Creatives.

Ashley Hawkins is co-founder and executive director of Studio Two Three, whose nonprofit mission is to give people the space, tools and education to find those things they love and make them. She has been honored as a Woman in the Arts by Style Weekly and is a recipient of a Virginia Commonwealth University 10 under 10 Alumni Award. She can be reached at ashley@studiotwothree.org.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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