When a member of the industry gets sick, it affects their well-being, their family and their employer. When that employee doesn’t have health insurance, not only is their health still in jeopardy, but also their financial future.
Jason Van Der Sluis recently started a new job as a body technician at an auto body shop in Southern California. A 10-year industry veteran, the 28-year-old had a seizure and collapsed at work his first week on the job.
He went to the emergency room, where doctors found a large tumor near his brain. Surgeons were unable to remove the entire tumor, which is cancerous. Van Der Sluis has started radiation therapy, the only treatment for the cancer.
He had neither group health insurance from his employer nor individual health insurance.
“Cars are his passion,” said sister Teresa Caraveo. “He feels so lucky that he’s been able to provide for his family doing something that he loves.”
Van Der Sluis’ family includes his wife of five years, Laura, and three children: Connor, 5, Meagan, 3, and Brendan, 2.
“All their plans that they’ve had for the future short-term and long-term have been stopped,” says Lonnie Caraveo, Teresa’s husband. Lonnie Caraveo is the manager of Phil’s Body Shop in Seattle. With the help of shop president Phil Blodgett, he’s getting the word out about Van Der Sluis and trying to raise awareness about the plight of uninsured employees in the industry.
Blodgett, like Van Der Sluis, started in this business in his late teens. A cancer survivor, Blodgett lost a kidney and part of a lung to the disease more than 10 years ago. While he recently received news that his health is just fine, he worries about others who aren’t so fortunate, including one of his employees whose kidney cancer has metastasized.
Along with Phil’s Body Shop, Blodgett owns a couple different companies, including Saitek USA and ABM Heart Technologies, a medical device company. He provides health insurance to his employees. But offering employee benefits is expensive, especially with high rates of turnover. For some shops, affording benefits might mean lowering pay rates, which doesn’t help to entice potential employees. “It’s a very sensitive subject with all of us,” he says.
Blodgett says the industry today isn’t the same as when he started his body shop some 40 years ago. In the Seattle area, he’s seen journeymen painters leave the industry for better jobs with better benefits at Boeing.
“How can we attract new people to our trade when we cannot afford to take care of our own?” he asks.
Even when shops are able to attract employees, Caraveo notes that those employees typically have to work in a shop for a long time before the shop invests in them, something he has experienced firsthand both as an employee and a manager.
“We are guilty of putting these guys in the situation where they have to bounce from job to job,” he says. And with the current climate in the industry, newer employees are typically the first to go when the going gets rough.
“The guys who are set are the ones who have been at a shop for a long time and have a home,” Caraveo says. “The young guys are still trying to figure out where they’re at and make their way. It’s a tough road for them.”
Jason Van Der Sluis knows that road too well. “He just wants to get back to what’s comfortable and what he knows, and that’s working on cars,” Caraveo says.
Contributions can be made to the Jason Van Der Sluis Medical Fund at Bank of America, established by Lisa E. Dunn of Washington state.