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Fighting Over the Health Care Law by the Hours

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Republican proponents of raising the workweek threshold for employee coverage under the Affordable Care Act to 40 hours per week include Collins, who plans to introduce a bill dealing with this aspect of the law.

Critics of the law say the mandate could open the door to claims by part-time workers seeking other benefits such as paid sick leave or family leave.

The mandate tussle has focused attention on the nation’s 6.5 million part-time employees, who make up 17 percent of the nation’s labor force of 154.9 million workers, according to the Labor Department’s latest report. The post- financial-meltdown swell of part-time workers peaked at 19.7 percent in 2010, and has declined in the last year.

Despite that reversal, both sides voice concern about surveys that show little change in a core group of 7.8 million “underemployed” workers: part-time workers who want full-time jobs. Such workers receive few benefits and face hurdles in trying to find full-time work in a time of high unemployment.

The coming debate on the employer mandate will provide a glimpse of the emerging battle lines between the parties on the best approach to helping younger, part-time workers climb the ladder.

Republicans hope to seize momentum from Obama’s campaign against income inequality to make the case for more flexibility to allow businesses to streamline operations and grow. Their mantra: less regulation, low taxes and lean budgets to lift the fortunes of all businesses and workers.

Democrats counter by calling for more direct help for workers in tough times: a higher minimum wage, an extension of expanded jobless aid and more job training. They vow to defeat changes to an employer mandate that extends coverage to some part-time workers. “We are not changing Obamacare over this,” said Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

Thomas Buchmueller, a business economics professor at the University of Michigan and a former senior health economist for the Council of Economic Advisers, said the workweek threshold for the employer mandate was certain to result in shorter hours for some workers, regardless of how it is structured. He said the current threshold was designed to raise revenue — about $140 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office — and to have a modest impact on workers that average slightly more than 30 hours a week. He said the current threshold was unlikely to have an impact on the large groups of workers that average about 40 or about 20 hours a week.

Advocates of the higher 40-hour threshold say it would mirror a 1938 law that mandates overtime pay. They cite a University of California at Berkeley study that found 2.3 million part-time workers would be at most risk for reduced hours because they are working 30 and 35 hours a week, have no employer coverage and qualify for health care subsidies with earnings less than 400 percent of the poverty-level income. They point to decisions by public and private employers to cut hours of workers in preparation for the mandate.

In other cases, retailers such as Target, Home Depot and Trader Joe’s have dropped health care benefits for some part-time workers, and funnelled them to new health care exchanges.

But defenders of the current mandate argue that the creation of a 40-hour threshold would expose more workers to cuts. They cite a new UC Berkeley study showing 6.5 million workers are at most risk of reduced hours because they work more than 40 hours a week, get no employer coverage and qualify for health care subsidies.

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