FOCUS: Effects of Obamacare’s Employer Mandate Remain Uncertain

MILWAUKEE (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/TNS) -

Eric Wagner estimates that the cost of providing health benefits at his business could rise at least 50 percent this year, possibly as much as 100 percent.

Yet Wagner, the chief executive of the company that operates five restaurants in the Milwaukee area, is sticking with his plan to add two more restaurants in the coming year. And he has no intention of cutting employees’ hours, despite the controversial provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires businesses with 100 or more full-time workers to offer health insurance.

“We want to attract the best people possible,” Wagner said.

Fears that employers would duck the requirement by reducing workers’ hours to make them part-time employees don’t seem to have played out on any noticeable scale so far.

But the requirement still is strongly opposed by some businesses, and whether it increases the number of Americans with health insurance remains to be seen.

“There is this element of the unknown,” said Rich Yurkowitz, a health-benefits consultant and actuary with Aon Hewitt, a benefits-consulting company. “For some employers, there is little risk. For others, there is significant risk.”

Retailers and restaurants have been among the strongest opponents, particularly of the law’s definition of full-time work as 30 or more hours a week.

“Restaurant companies are going to take a big hit here, because they have so many employees,” said Wagner, whose company employs 450 to 500 people, with 100 to 125 working full time. “We are probably impacted by it as much or more than any other industry.”

Most of the companies affected this year already offer health benefits — 94 percent of those with 100 to 999 employees and 99.5 percent of those with 1,000 or more employees did in 2012.

That will change next year, when the requirement applies to those with the equivalent of at least 50 full-time employees.

What might matter more than requiring larger employers to offer health benefits is the law’s defining full-time employees as anyone who works on average at least 30 hours a week.

One study estimated that 2.6 million people — or 3 percent of the U.S. workforce — work 30 to 36 hours a week and did not receive health insurance through an employer.

“Employers are struggling with how to manage that, and one way they manage that is to have employees work 29 hours or less,” said Leigh Riley, a lawyer with Foley & Lardner.

But that, too, has a cost.

Employers would have to hire more part-time workers, and recruiting and training new employees costs money. It also could prompt some employees to look for work elsewhere, increasing turnover. And employing more part-time workers adds to the challenge of scheduling workers and running a business.

“We certainly are telling our clients that they need to do a cost-benefit analysis,” Riley said.

The provision basically requires employers who don’t offer health benefits to at least 70 percent of their full-time employees to pay a penalty of $2,084 for each full-time worker this year. Other employers could face a penalty of $3,126 for each worker who receives a federal subsidy to help buy a health plan on a marketplace set up under the Affordable Care Act.

That’s the shorthand version. The details are considerably more complicated.

The provision has been a prime target for the law’s opponents, and Republicans are almost certain to use their control of Congress this year to push for its repeal. Some Democrats also are receptive to ending the requirement.

Opponents have long contended the employer mandate will limit hiring and hinder the economic recovery.

Some employers have said they were cutting jobs because of the law, according to several surveys. But the economy has shown signs of gaining strength just as the mandate was about to go into effect, last year posting the strongest employment growth since 1999.

In addition to retailers and restaurant groups, the mandate could particularly affect call centers, temporary staffing companies, home-care agencies, nursing homes and others with high percentages of low-wage workers. But the effect will vary, even for companies in the same industry, from employer to employer.

As employers wrestle with the provision’s complexity, it remains unclear whether the employer mandate will lead to more people having health insurance. For one thing, an employer has to offer only single coverage, not the much more expensive family coverage.