For a trillion-dollar law devoted to public health, it's ironic that one ObamaCare side-effect may be for more food-service workers to show up to work sick.
Sodexo USA, whose 100,000-plus employees provide food services at colleges and other schools across the country, has acknowledged eliminating sick days for workers being reclassified as part-time.
The accumulation of paid sick days (as well as personal and vacation days) counts toward the law's full-time threshold of 30 hours per week, at which employer penalties for failing to offer coverage apply.
Sodexo chose to cut sick leave and vacation time (along with health benefits) rather than cut work hours. In effect, each week of paid time off lowers ObamaCare's 30-hour full-time definition by 35 minutes.
"Sodexo is aligning how we define benefits eligibility for our health and welfare benefits with federal requirements and definitions to avoid potential penalties that could be levied," the company explained on its website.
Part-Time? No Sick Time A shift toward more part-time food-service workers, as anecdotal evidence and official data suggest is occurring under ObamaCare rules, also may result in more industry workers showing up sick.
In general, part-time workers are much less likely to get paid sick leave. In 2012, 23% got paid sick leave vs. 75% of full-time workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
It turns out that some of the industry groups seeing the steepest drops in average hours are in food services, according to BLS private-industry data. At cafeterias, the average workweek has fallen 6.3% since the end of 2012, from 27.2 hours to 25.5 hours.
At retail bakeries, the average workweek has shrunk 4.5%, from 29.1 hours to 27.8 hours. Sneeze Danish, anyone
The workweek is down more modestly at limited-service restaurants (1.6%, to 24.1 hours) and supermarkets (1%, to 29.3 hours).
For low-wage workers, lost wages due to illness are something to be avoided if at all possible, and the urgency of missing work only increases for those who have their schedules cut.
States Mull Mandates The problem of food-service workers coming to work sick is hardly new. In fact, it's been getting attention from a number of state and local governments.
Connecticut in 2011 became the first state to mandate sick leave, with one hour earned for every 40 hours of work. In effect, this mandate lowers ObamaCare's definition of full-time to 29.25 hours of actual work, since employers have to provide nearly 3/4 of an hour of paid sick leave.
California is considering a mandate of three sick days. Mandated sick leave also is on the agenda in Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., have adopted such rules.
Sodexo said its move to eliminate sick days and other benefits is being made "to maintain our competitiveness in the market.
Colleges Cutting Hours, Too Yet the universities and other schools that Sodexo serves can influence the decision — if they are prepared to bear the cost. The University of Vermont, for example, resisted the changes, as its contract allows.
The reason other institutions served by Sodexo aren't doing the same may be that many public employers are themselves taking steps to limit liability under the Affordable Care Act employer mandate. More than 300 public-sector employers are on IBD's list of those cutting work hours to avoid ObamaCare penalties. It includes more than 120 school districts and 100 universities, colleges and college systems.
At least 11 of the school districts have cut the hours of the cafeteria workers they employ.
The list is far from comprehensive, adding employers only when proof of the policy change can be documented.
Most private-sector employers want to avoid such publicity, but IBD's list does include a few dozen food-related companies, including regional supermarkets, fast-food franchisees and several national restaurant chains.
Sodexo has said it will compensate those who lose sick leave with higher pay. Yet these low-wage workers would still face a big hole in their paycheck at the end of the week if they miss a day or more of work.
Serving While Sick Food-service companies have protocols and employee guidelines to prevent the spread of sickness through contact with food. Yet a recent survey of food-service workers published in the Journal of Food Protection found that 20% had worked while ill withserious symptoms.
A higher minimum wage might make some difference, as would mandated sick leave. But the downside may be fewer jobs and average hours. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that hiking the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would cost 500,000 jobs, but it said the combination of ObamaCare's employer mandate and a wage hike could cost even more.