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Democrats Defend Health Law's 30-Hour Work Week

By Kerry Young, CQ Roll Call

January 22, 2015 -- Senate Democrats on the panel that oversees health policy recently sought to hold the line on a health law rule that compels employers to provide medical insurance for workers who put in at least 30 hours a week.

The stance puts more pressure on the chamber's Republicans to pick up enough crossover votes to gain a filibuster-proof majority for a bill (S 30) that would reset the threshold to 40 hours.

Two Democrats, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, are among the 34 backers of the bill sponsored by Susan Collins, R-Maine. Twelve Democrats helped House Republicans pass a similar bill (HR 30) this month that the White House has threatened to veto.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Democrats were unified and adamant in their opposition during a hearing last week.

Tammy Baldwin, D–Wis., said she wants to cooperate with Republicans to make "common sense fixes" to the 2010 health law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), but termed the 40-hour bill "another politically driven attack on the health care law that is going to undermine the economic security of our families."

Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on HELP, said changing the law would disadvantage responsible employers, those who would provide insurance without being compelled to.

Tutta Bella Neopolitan Pizzeria, a five-location chain in greater Seattle, for example, has offered medical, dental and vision benefits to salaried managers since 2005, and to all hourly employees since 2008. The company's minimum threshold for health care is 24 hours of work a week, reflecting the fact that part-time work is "inherent in the fabric of restaurants," the chain's founder and owner, Joe Fugere, told the committee.

"If this bill passes, it would allow Mr. Fugere's competitors to cut benefits," Murray said. "What would happen is that Tutta Bella would be subsidizing irresponsible behavior of those employers who don't cover their employees and push them onto public programs."

HELP Republicans maintained that the 30-hour standard is causing employers to limit hourly worker's schedules. And school districts and other employers now struggle to arrange some staffing schedules to avoid tripping the 30-hour threshold, they said.

Betsy Webb, superintendent of the Bangor School Department in Maine, told the panel she is concerned about the effects on students' education, citing substitute teachers as an example. If a teacher is out for a week, Webb's preference would be to have one substitute for the entire absence, reducing the disruption for students. Due to the 30-hour work week rule, there now may be a decision in some cases to use a different substitute teacher at the end of the week, she said.

HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, R–Tenn., questioned why the 2010 law set the threshold at 30 hours. The average American between the ages of 25 and 49 years of age works 8.8 hours a day, or 44 hours a week, he said, citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The 30-hour standard "is a strange definition—one that sounds more like France than the United States," Alexander said.

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