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Passing the Buck on Health Care




The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it’s referred to, is going to dramatically change the way we live our lives and balance our budgets. The largest group of beneficiaries is working people who are currently not covered by their employer yet don’t earn enough to buy health insurance on their own, including a large number of food service and retail workers. These workers currently are forced to pay out of pocket, forgo medical treatment or rely on public health clinics.

You’d imagine these workers would be jumping for joy at the thought of a new federal law requiring their employers to help them meet a critical human need. Unfortunately, there is little recourse for these workers for the next two years. While most of the healthcare dialogue has revolved around the individual requirement, the recent announcement that the employer mandate will be pushed back until 2015 has quietly fallen off the radar. This is a problem because the delay creates fuzzy ground in which employers with 50 full-time employees or more – those that can afford the mandate – are exempted. Additionally, the delay permits these same corporations to avoid having to classify their workers’ employment status. This creates a sort of worker purgatory — “Am I an employee with the right to coverage vs. a temp or independent contractor?”

This delay causes individual workers to bear the brunt of insurance requirements. At the same time, large employers get to defer their responsibilities.

Something is wrong with this picture, but who did this and why? The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, was the leader in lobbying Congress to delay the mandate. H.R. 2677, the Authority for Mandate Delay Act, was the industry’s successful attempt to push back covering their workers. It’s quite telling that the retail industry felt the most threatened by this requirement, as it comprises the largest-growing segment of jobs, totaling 13 percent of all employees nationally (42 million people).

The delay was one of many methods trending amongst retailers to avoid providing insurance to their workers. Walmart, for example, has recently adopted the practice of hiring temp workers to avoid ever having to provide insurance by keeping people off-payroll. Fatburger, another major employer of low-wage workers, hasn’t even tried to hide the fact that it wants to avoid insurance requirements; the company has shifted around part-time employees to different restaurants to permanently deny full-time status to their workers. As long as their workers fall below the 30-hour full-time worker threshold at any given restaurant, they don’t have to provide insurance.

Does this herald a new low in our economy – a revolving door of temporary workers in our retail and grocery stores? Without regular employees, the quality of stores is bound to suffer as new employees come and go.

Retail and food service employees are the greatest casualty of this delay and it will be interesting to see if the same large employers will try to dodge these provisions once the delay ends. One thing is clear: The next wave of organizing in this industry among non-unionized retailers will have to address issues of worker hourly requirements. While some companies claim that flexible hours allow for great efficiency, there is obviously another reason for the growing move to part-time and temporary work – namely to shift more of the burden of providing health care to workers and the public. Employer-based coverage is a key part of keeping Americans healthier and keeping health care more affordable. If the Affordable Care Act is to achieve its stated goals, its supporters will have to address this issue head on.

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