30-hr week battle rages

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Business leaders are waging an all-out fight to change ObamaCare’s definition of full-time work, even as the White House threatens to veto legislation that would strike down the statute’s contentious 30-hour week.

The issue, a K Street priority for years, has taken on fresh urgency with the dawn of a Republican-controlled Congress bent on chipping away at the president’s signature healthcare law.

{mosads}In the coming days, both the House and Senate will take action on bipartisan bills that would modify the full-time employee standard, a component of the law’s employer mandate. But corporate lobbyists now trying to build support among lawmakers will have to overcome objections from labor unions and President Obama.

Under the healthcare law, large employers must provide insurance to employees working full time — defined in ObamaCare as at least 30 hours per week — or face a penalty. Senators on Wednesday will offer up a bill that aims to change that threshold to 40 hours. The House will take a vote on similar legislation on Thursday.

“In the last Congress, while there was strong acceptance of the need to do this, the decision about when to do it was calculated based on ACA bigger [Affordable Care Act] politics,” said Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs for the National Restaurant Association. “I think now there is an acceptance that changes can be made to the ACA, since it’s happening so fast.”

The restaurants, joined by the International Franchise Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and several others have launched a campaign dubbed “More Time for Full Time” to encourage the change. 

In addition to teams of lobbyists mobilized by the organizations, the initiative attempts to showcase support among constituents for the measure.

Other supporters, such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, are acting separately. Together, the organizations intend to flood Capitol Hill with letters, phone calls and visits to help push the measure through. 

A member of the franchisers association who owns a Fargo, N.D.-based retail chain penned an op-ed over the holiday recess opposing the full-time definition, a nudge to Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who represents red-state North Dakota.

“If the workweek is defined as 30 hours instead of the traditional 40 hours, we will be inclined to hire more people part time rather than at the full-time wages they’d prefer to receive,” business owner Ciara Stockeland wrote in the op-ed, outlining the key argument of the bill’s supporters. “No one wins, and the economy is quickly affected.”

Republican gains in Congress and support from a growing number of Democrats offer the proponents of the change their best chance to date.

But there remains opposition from the left — most prominently from the AFL-CIO — which prefers an even lower threshold. 

Since there are millions of employees already working 40 hours a week, raising the mandatory healthcare threshold to that level may lead businesses to cut hours to avoid providing them insurance, opponents say.

Tom Leibfried, a healthcare lobbyist at the AFL-CIO, says those who work 40 hours or more are more sensitive to a reduction in hours or wages than those working part time. 

“It is actually more expensive for employers to drop an employee down from 30 hours than it is to drop them from 40 to 39,” he added, citing a University of California, Berkeley, study. “It has to do with the costs of retention and recruiting.”

However, business groups downplay the complaints, saying employers are hamstrung by rules already in place.

“You cannot part-time your way out of the ACA obligations,” DeFife, of the restaurant lobby, said, pointing to other parts of the law that take total workforce hours into account. “This is about being able to manage your workforce in a way that is true to the pulse of the industry.”

Last year, the House passed the legislation scrapping the 30-hour workweek with support from 18 Democrats. It stalled in a Democratic-controlled Senate.

This time around, the new proposal already picked up at least four Democratic co-sponsors: Reps. Brad Ashford (Neb.), Gwen Graham (Fla.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.) and Collin Peterson (Minn.). 

Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.), is pushing more House Democrats to get on board.

The AFL-CIO is sending its own letter to Capitol Hill this week to discourage members from supporting the legislation. 

“There has been an ongoing erosion of employer-based coverage over the last 10 years, and it was an important part of the Affordable Care Act,” Leibfried told The Hill.

Doing away with the 30-hour threshold means Congress would have to find a way to replace millions of dollars in penalties collected from employers, a crucial part of how ObamaCare is funded.

“This whole thing was built on individuals getting coverage, businesses pitching in for their employees an the government stepping in for people who needed help,” Leibfried said. “That framework is undermined if you take out the employer responsibility requirement.”

The early-session vote gives K Street little opportunity to influence House members, so lobbyists on both sides of the issue are now focused in on the slower-moving Senate.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). 

Neil Trautwein, the vice president of healthcare policy at the National Retail Federation, envisions a Senate vote coming together within the first three months of the year.

“It will take a little more time to assemble the voting coalition,” he said. “It is a marker and an important early tell of what are the prospects for bipartisan actions to more incremental changes and improvements to the Affordable Care Act.”

Steve Caldeira, the president and chief executive of the franchise association, has been working closely with the Senate co-sponsors and he — like the legislation’s other supporters — is confident it can get the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster.

Proponents of the bills appear short of a veto-proof majority, and the White House signaled Tuesday that Obama would not sign the legislation. Business groups are resolved build momentum for the proposal, making it more difficult for the president to reject.

“Not everybody is going to get everything they want,” Caldeira said. “We remain cautious that if we maintain the bipartisan support, get it passed and to his desk that he will treat this with the respect that it deserves.”

Tags Heidi Heitkamp Joe Donnelly Susan Collins Todd Young

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