Waitress says she's losing full-time status due to 'Obamacare' rule

Waitress says she's losing full-time status due to 'Obamacare' rule
In this March 23, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama signs the health care bill in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

PORTLAND, Ore. – She works hard on her graveyard shift and is on her feet the entire time. Sometimes she has to serve customers who are less than polite.
 
Working in the restaurant business isn't easy. A late-night rush can hit like a flash flood, creating stress and a mess. But she's good at what she does – experienced – and any disarray is temporary. The restaurant is soon back in shape as if nothing happened.
 
But this Shari's waitress, who currently doesn't have health insurance, says her Portland-area restaurant cut her from full time to part time in response to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare."

Now, paying the bills becomes more difficult, increasing stress and uncertainty in her life.

Shari's, based in Beaverton, isn't alone in the industry in trying to figure out how to comply with the new federal health care law. And there are signs nationwide that an industry that traditionally depends heavily on part-timers is now going to depend on them even more as restaurants prepare for the new law.
 
The Shari's waitress, who spoke on the condition her name and the restaurant she works at not be used for fear of retaliation from her employer, says her hours dropped from between 37 to 40 a week to 27 to 29 a week. The new law will require companies that employ 50 or more employees to provide their workers with health insurance if they work an average of 30 hours a week or more. If companies don't, they'll be assessed fines.

In a written statement to KATU.com, Shari's vice president of marketing, Michael Kiriazis said, "We're not cutting hours or shifts," adding that Shari's will be hiring more workers over the next year as well as tripling the number of employees covered under the company's health care plan.

However, the company has sent several brochures to their employees with their paychecks over the past several months explaining the new health care law and its effects on them. In one titled, "Shari's and Health Care Reform: Changes Coming at Shari's," it tells employees that while the company expects most hours for them to remain unchanged or increase, part-time positions will be added "in all areas to make up for hours that are reduced for some employees."

In a follow-up email, Kiriazis was pressed to explain the apparent discrepancy between his statement that said Shari's is "not cutting hours or shifts" and the brochure, which stated part-time workers will be added to cover "hours that are reduced for some employees."

In the same email, Kiriazis was also pressed to explain how it will be possible for Shari's to expand the number of employees partially covered by the company's health care plan while at the same time adding more part-time employees.

He would not comment about that other than to say he couldn't possibly calculate how many hours each of the company's almost 4,000 employees will work a week.

He said since Shari's employees don't speak for the company, he can't comment on what they tell the media.

Kiriazis said Shari's is shifting its workforce "back to previous industry standard(s), comprised mostly of part-time workers," before the recession and the new health care law.

He also said the Obama administration's one-year delay of the employer mandate to provide employees with health insurance who work more than 30 hours a week has not changed the company’s plans or timeline in how it deals with the new law.

"We're continuing with providing affordable health care to our full-time employees because it's the right thing to do, not because it's mandated," he wrote.

According to its website, Shari's has 100 restaurants in seven Northwestern states.

There have been fears that employers would slash workers' hours as they complied with the new law, thereby transforming the nation's workers into a force of part-timers.

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that some owners of restaurants, including an owner of 10 Subway shops in Michigan, are relying more on part-time help as a result of the new law. The newspaper also reported that the owner of Carl’s Jr., CKE Restaurants Inc., is using part-timers to replace many full-time employees who leave their jobs. And an owner of 11 Del Taco restaurants in Denver is turning his full-time workforce into mostly a part-time one.

The government's announcement of the employer-mandate delay that favored business does not ease the anxiety of the Shari's waitress. She says she now must find a second job to help pay the bills within her already tight budget.

"I have to find another job," the waitress, who rents a house with her daughter, says. "I'm trying – immediately. If I can't find another job within a month, I don't even want to think about what's going to happen."

Working two or more jobs will be difficult, she says, because she'll have to juggle competing schedules. Additionally, she's over 50 and is anxious about finding a new job at her age.

She says at her restaurant at least three other employees have had their hours reduced below the 30-hour threshold. The number of employees affected at each restaurant varies, she says, depending on different needs.

While some of her anger is directed at her employer, most of it is aimed at the law intended to help her and others like her who don't have health insurance.

When asked how she feels about Obamacare, she responded flatly, "Horrible ... Before now, I didn't even know about it. I feel like it snuck up on me."

She acknowledges she didn't vote in the last presidential election – a contest where Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney vowed to repeal the health care law, even if it was almost the same legislation he signed as governor of Massachusetts.

She was fed up with the politics of both parties.

Bill Perry, vice president of government affairs, with the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association says he "anecdotally" knows that some restaurants in Oregon are cutting full-time employees in Oregon in favor of part-time ones.

He says there are two basic concerns for the industry regarding the health care insurance changes: the federal government has not yet released implementation regulations and it is not known yet how many employees will want health insurance through a company plan.

Because the penalty for someone who chooses to forgo having health insurance will be $95 in 2014, Perry says employees may choose that option instead of paying $100 or $200 a month in premiums for health insurance.

"In order to have a business plan, currently, almost all of the (insurance) carriers say you have to have at least 70 percent participation of your employees," he says. "That's why a lot of our members don't have plans. They don't have plans today, not because they don't want to offer them, but that they can't get enough employees to participate to have a plan available."

But the penalties for adults who choose to remain uninsured will increase to $325 in 2015 and $695 in 2016. Those increases may drive workers to seek health insurance, which if not supplied through their employer, can be found through state exchanges.
 
In Oregon, the exchange is called Cover Oregon. Open enrollment for individuals, families and small businesses begins in October.

Some large national restaurant chains appear to be handling the health care law without cutting their full-time staff.

Darden Restaurants Inc., which owns, among other well-known restaurants, Olive Garden and Red Lobster, announced late last year that it had figured out how to operate under the new law without changing the status of its 45,000 full-time employees.

While the industry makes its own decisions in what to do, the Shari's waitress has also vowed to act: She says she plans to write her representatives in Congress and even President Barack Obama.

"I don't foresee (Obamacare) helping me out at all," she says. "When I'm forced to get insurance, how am I supposed to afford that? I can't even afford health insurance now, let alone then."