Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, plans to begin denying health insurance to newly hired employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week, according to a copy of the company’s policy obtained by The Huffington Post. Under the policy, slated to take effect in January, Walmart also reserves the right to eliminate health care coverage for certain workers if their average workweek dips below 30 hours -- something that happens with regularity and at the direction of company managers. Walmart declined to disclose how many of its roughly 1.4 million U.S. workers are vulnerable to losing medical insurance under its new policy. In an emailed statement, company spokesman David Tovar said Walmart had “made a business decision” not to respond to questions from The Huffington Post and accused the publication of unfair coverage. Labor and health care experts portrayed Walmart’s decision to exclude workers from its medical plans as an attempt to limit costs while taking advantage of the national health care reform known as Obamacare. Among the key features of Obamacare is an expansion of Medicaid, the taxpayer-financed health insurance program for poor people. Many of the Walmart workers who might be dropped from the company’s health care plans earn so little that they would qualify for the expanded Medicaid program, these experts said. “Walmart is effectively shifting the costs of paying for its employees onto the federal government with this new plan, which is one of the problems with the way the law is structured,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. For Walmart, this latest policy represents a step back in time. Almost seven years ago, as Walmart confronted public criticism that its employees couldn't afford its benefits, the company announced with much fanfare that it would expand health coverage for part-time workers. But last year, the company eliminated coverage for some part-time workers -- those new hires working 24 hours a week or less. Now, Walmart is going further. “Walmart likely thought it didn’t need to offer this part-time coverage anymore with Obamacare,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is another example of a tremendous government subsidy to Walmart via its workers.” In pursuing lower health care costs, Walmart is following the same course as many other large employers. But given its unrivaled scale, Walmart’s policies tend to influence American working conditions more broadly. Tom Billet, a senior consultant at Towers Watson, a professional services firm that works with large companies to develop benefit plans, said other companies are also crafting policies that will exclude some part-time workers from medical coverage. Billet portrayed the growing corporate interest in separating out part-time workers as a reaction to another aspect of Obamacare -- the new rules that require companies with at least 50 full-time workers to offer health coverage to all employees who work 30 or more hours a week or pay penalties. Several employers in recent months, including Darden Restaurants, owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, and a New York-area Applebee’s franchise owner, said they are considering cutting employee hours to push more workers below the 30-hour threshold. “In the past, firms were less careful about monitoring whether someone was full- or part-time,” Billet said, noting that some of his clients were planning to track workers’ hours more carefully. “I expect health plans like Walmart’s won’t be uncommon as firms adjust to this law.” For Walmart employees, the new system raises the risk that they could lose their health coverage in large part because they have little control over their schedules. Walmart uses an advanced scheduling system to constantly alter workers’ shifts according to store traffic and sales figures.
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