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“Where Employees Are Treated With Contempt”: Obama Blasts Staples, And Reveals Larger Partisan Divide Over Workplace

Another big interview with President Obama came out today, this one from Buzzfeed, and this section, in which Obama slammed Staples for limiting employee hours, supposedly in response to Obamacare, is creating a bit of buzz:

BEN SMITH: If I can move on to the Affordable Care Act. We reported yesterday that the office supply store Staples is — I’m sure this is an issue you’ve heard about before — is telling its workers that it will fire them if they work more than 25 hours a week. A manager had told a worker we talked to that “Obama’s responsible for this policy,” and they’re putting these notices on the wall of their break room saying that. I wonder what you’d say to the CEO of Staples, Ronald Sargent, about that policy?

OBAMA: What I would say is that millions of people are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act. Satisfaction is high. The typical premium is less than 100 bucks.

SMITH: But this is a specific consequence…

OBAMA: No, I’m gonna answer the question. And that there is no reason for an employer who is not currently providing health care to their workers to discourage them from either getting health insurance on the job or being able to avail themselves of the Affordable Care Act. I haven’t looked at Staples stock lately or what the compensation of the CEO is, but I suspect that they could well afford to treat their workers favorably and give them some basic financial security, and if they can’t, then they should be willing to allow those workers to get the Affordable Care Act without cutting wages.

This is the same argument that I’ve made with respect to something like paid sick leave. We have 43 million Americans who, if they get sick or their child gets sick, are looking at either losing their paycheck or going to the job sick or leaving their child at home sick. It’s one thing when you’ve got a mom-and-pop store who can’t afford to provide paid sick leave or health insurance or minimum wage to workers — even though a large percentage of those small businesses do it because they know it’s the right thing to do — but when I hear large corporations that make billions of dollars in profits trying to blame our interest in providing health insurance as an excuse for cutting back workers’ wages, shame on them.

Obama obviously didn’t know any details of the Staples situation when he was asked the question, but Buzzfeed reported Monday that the company is becoming particularly aggressive in making sure its part-time workers don’t work more than 25 hours a week, now that an Affordable Care Act provision mandating that large companies offer health insurance to employees working over 30 hours is in effect. Staples says that the policy is years old and has nothing to do with health insurance; the employees Buzzfeed talked to say it’s being enforced with renewed vigor.

Regardless of those details, this is another example of the fundamental difference between the approach to workplace issues Obama is trying to move Democrats toward, and the ways that Republicans are pushing back. As I argued a few weeks ago when Obama raised the issue of paid sick leave — which the United States is alone among highly developed countries in not mandating — Republicans essentially want to help people get to the employer’s door, while Democrats want to go inside with the worker and help make the workplace more humane.

The Staples story illustrates the environment of so many contemporary American workplaces, where employees are treated with contempt and suspicion while being told how much they’re loved. The original Buzzfeed story contains a Staples memo threatening part-time employees with discipline up to termination if they clock in for more than 25 hours in a week. The memo ends with, “I appreciate and value you.” I’m sure that warmed the workers’ hearts.

There may be some part-time workers who find that in response to the ACA’s insurance mandate, their employers try to limit their hours in the way Staples is doing. That’s why Republicans want to change the mandate’s definition of full-time employment from 30 to 40 hours. But we should be clear about what would happen if Republicans got their way. Some number of people like those at Staples might be able to work a few more hours (though if Staples is telling the truth, it wouldn’t matter for their part-timers, because they’re adamant about keeping them below 25 hours regardless). But a much larger group — full-time hourly workers — would then be in danger of losing their health coverage.

Right now if a large company (remember, this provision only applies to large companies) wanted to cut a full-time employee’s hours so they wouldn’t have to offer her health insurance, they’d have to cut her all the way down from 40 to 29 hours, which in most cases just isn’t practical. But if the law’s definition of full-time work was 40 hours, they could cut her from 40 to 39 and be able to take away her health coverage, which would be a lot easier. One hopes that few companies would want to do that, and indeed, over nine out of ten large companies were already offering insurance to full-time workers even before the Affordable Care Act. But some would, and the number of employees at risk of losing their coverage would be much higher than it is under the current 30-hour definition.

The populist stance Obama is taking here is undoubtedly good politics; Republicans will try to say that they’re the ones on the side of the part-time workers, but voters generally understand that they’re always in favor of giving employers the power to treat employers however they wish. In any case, this kind of dispute is just one more reason why we should try to move away from a system where most people get insurance through their employers. If we did that, people wouldn’t have to rely on the generosity of their bosses, and we wouldn’t have to argue about who’s part-time and who’s full-time. And neither party has a particular stake in, or ideological commitment to, the employer-based insurance system; it’s an artifact of history. Moving beyond it would be a major change, and we all know by now that when it comes to their health coverage, people fear change. But it would be better for everybody.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, February 11, 2015

February 12, 2015 - Posted by | Corporations, Health Insurance, Wages | , , , , , ,

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