Dembrow Wants to Stop Employers from Cutting Hours Due to Obamacare

Senate Bill 1543 died in committee, but it would have prevented employers from reducing employee hours below 30 to avoid giving them health coverage, as required by the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, a bill expanding Oregon’s successful Home Care Commission from Medicaid to the general population and the bill requiring disclosure of toxic chemicals in children’s products passed the Senate Health Committee.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, pushed a bill that would fix a serious negative and unintended consequence of the Affordable Care Act -- large corporations scaling back employee hours to avoid providing them with health insurance.

The Affordable Care Act mandates that large employers offer health insurance coverage to all employees who work at least 30 hours. But, since its passage in 2010, many workers have seen their hours cut from 35 to 29 a week, which can mean a loss of $50 a week or more than $2,000 a year -- a huge sum for someone making less than $15 an hour.

“The hope was well-intended that large corporations would do the right thing,” Dembrow told the Senate Health Committee. “I do think that most of these large corporations can comply.”

Elana Guiney of the Oregon AFL-CIO testified that many household corporations such as Trader Joe’s, Staples, Cabela’s and Forever 21 have publicly announced they are cutting employee hours to avoid the law. “This isn’t a fake problem,” Guiney said. “If you’re opposed to the [ACA] reform, I ask that you set that aside, and try to fix it for Oregonians.”

Before it died in committee, Senate Bill 1543 would have made it it illegal to cut employee hours just to avoid the employer mandate under the Affordable Care Act.

Employers who violate the law would be subject to investigation and penalties from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, the Senate Health Committee chairwoman, sponsored the bill, but decided to block SB 1543 from moving to the Senate floor. She said that while she was supportive of the concept, she wished to avoid any overly controversial measures in the short 2014 session.

SB 1543 was quickly denounced by conservative business groups like Associated Oregon Industries and the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), and the bill had the passionate opposition of Republican Sen. Jeff Kruse, who helps manage his family farming business outside Roseburg. “If employers are cutting hours, it’s because they can’t afford it,” he said. “This ridiculous act is forcing them to do things they don’t want to do. … This [bill] is going to put people out of business, and it’s just wrong.”

The bill does not impact businesses with fewer than 100 employees, including the vast majority of companies that pay dues to the National Federation of Independent Business, which was the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case against the Affordable Care Act. After receiving $850,000 from America’s Health Insurance Plans, the NFIB fought the law that attempts to make health insurance affordable to small businesses.

Striking a more conciliatory tone, Bill Perry of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association,said many of the businesses in his organization had previously offered health insurance to their employees, only to have them decline because they couldn’t afford the premiums. Fewer people in the insurance pools created a vicious circle of rising rates. He also noted that some restaurants offered to either expand hours for employees who had been working 35 hours up to 40 or down to 29, and some employees preferred to work fewer hours.

Perry said Dembrow’s bill would likely affect restaurant or hotel chains if they had more than three locations.  “You’re changing the rules of the game when we’re halfway down the track,” he said.

Dembrow countered that the government should take pragmatic steps to fix the law, even if he would’ve preferred a public option or expanding Medicare for all Americans.

“That would’ve been the more sensible route to go,” he said.

The senator from the east side of Portland is the leading champion of single-payer health insurance in Oregon’s state government. Health Care for All Oregon, with his support, has been working to put a single-payer ballot initiative before voters in 2016.

Home Care Commission for All

Tuesday was a bittersweet day at the Capitol as the public learned whether many bills would move on or die in committees. In addition to SB 1543, Senate Bill 1560, the telemedicine bill backed by ZoomCare also died. Monnes Anderson did allow two bills that evoked controversy to move out of her committee -- Senate Bill 1542, which expands the state’s Home Care Commission to help people without Medicaid and Senate Bill 1569, which requires toy manufacturers to disclose if their products contain toxic chemicals.

Currently, the Home Care Commission organizes home care workers selected by Medicaid clients and helps the state save money by keeping low-income seniors in their homes rather than paying for them to be cared for in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

SB 1542 would open up the commission to people who want to pay for such services using their own money. The bill provides middle-class seniors with another option besides home care agencies, which can be expensive and are absent from 14 Oregon counties, according to SEIU, including most of Eastern Oregon.

“Our home care registry has members in every one of our 36 counties,” said Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, the chief sponsor of HB 1542.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, said she wished her family would have had the option of the Home Care Commission to care for her mother-in-law. They had the option of hiring a private agency, where the worker may only receive half of what was paid, or they could have hired someone privately while having to pay taxes for Social Security and unemployment insurance.

SB 1542 doesn’t allow the Home Care Commission to charge more than 107 percent of the cost of a homecare worker.

“It will make the care more affordable,” said Rosenbaum.

But Kruse opposed the bill, and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, expressed anti-union sentiment at an earlier hearing. An expanded Home Care Commission would be an expanded work force for the Service Employees International Union, to which Knopp objected. State home care workers are not required to join SEIU, but must pay to receive the benefit of union representation, which has greatly increased the salaries for these workers through collective bargaining.  Knopp was absent for Tuesday’s vote.

The Oregon Health Care Association, which has member agencies that offer home care services, supported the bill after it was amended to bring the Home Care Commission more in line with the demands placed on their agencies, including the crafting of service plans and the defining of scope.

Private agencies often employ registered nurses who supervise home care workers and train them to provide insulin shots or assist with catheters. Workers from the Home Care Commission would not be able to perform such tasks without similar supervision.

Toxic Chemicals in Toys Disclosure

A bill very similar to SB 1569 passed the House with a bipartisan vote last year, but ran into opposition in the Senate and died without a vote. This time, advocates such as the Oregon Environmental Council and Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, allowed the bill to be scaled back so that it replicates a Washington law.

The original bill asked that companies like Walmart that use toxic chemicals such as cadmium, bisphenol-A and formaldehyde in children’s products phase out those chemicals. The Washington law simply requires these companies to report their use of such chemicals.

But it was still opposed by the Senate Health Committee’s two Republicans, who both hail from the conservative wing of the party. For the bill to pass the Senate, it will either have to win the support of the Senate’s conservative Democrat, Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, or one of the more moderate Republicans, such as Sen. Jackie Winters of Salem.

Winters told The Lund Report on Wednesday that she had been opposed to last year’s comprehensive bill but had not yet studied the scaled-back SB 1569 closely enough to form an opinion.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].
Image for this story by M.O. Stevens (public domain). 
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