If you were paying close attention, you would have heard a new phrase being repeated by Republicans, particularly Mitch McConnell, over the last few days: "restore the 40-hour workweek." You may have said, "Wait, is the workweek not 40 hours anymore?" If you had no idea what McConnell is talking about—and I'm pretty sure he's hoping very few people do—it sounds like he's advocating some kind of pro-worker initiative. And indeed, that's how he and John Boehner put it in their op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal, saying that one of the top items on their agenda is to "restore the traditional 40-hour definition of full-time employment, removing an arbitrary and destructive government barrier to more hours and better pay created by the Affordable Care Act of 2010."
Now we're getting closer. The government, with that damn Obamacare, is cutting your hours and pay! As Boehner put it, we have to "restore the 40-hour workweek for American workers that was undone by Obamacare." Since we're probably going to be hearing this from a lot of Republicans in the coming days as they wax rhapsodic about their deep concern for America's hourly workers, it would be good to clarify just what it is they're talking about here.
So let's be absolutely clear: what they're proposing is to make it easier for large employers to have full-time employees to whom they don't provide health insurance. That's it.
This is about the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act. It required that companies with 50 or more employees provide health coverage to full-time workers. The mandate has been delayed—for companies with 100 or more workers it takes effect in January, while those with between 50 and 99 will have to comply in 2016. The law's authors had to define "full-time" somehow, and they knew that if they defined it as someone working 40 hours, then employers could just cut people to 39 and deny them coverage. So they set the line at 30 hours, partly on the assumption that if an employer has a full-time employee, it would be difficult to cut them all the way down to 29 hours to declare them part time and avoid offering the coverage.
One really important thing to understand for context: almost all large employers already offer health coverage. In fact, 96 percent of firms with 50 or more workers do so, even before the mandate kicks in. Among larger firms the number is even higher. For all but a small number of firms, this provision doesn't matter.
Republicans have always objected to the employer mandate, and they'd like to repeal it entirely. The fact that now McConnell and Boehner are suddenly talking about the question of where the line between part-time and full-time work is suggests strongly that they're going to be introducing legislation to move that line. It takes a lot of gall to present it as some kind of pro-worker initiative, since what it actually means is, "We want to let your boss cut your hours from 40 to 39, then he'll be able to take away your health coverage." But they're surely hoping that the debate will sound to the public like Republicans want to mitigate the job-killing effects of Obamacare and stand up for workers, while the President just wants government sticking its hand in everybody's business. And who knows, they might be right.
For the record, there are strong arguments that the employer mandate should indeed be repealed—provided it's replaced with new provisions that protect people whose employers drop coverage. And I've advocated de-coupling health insurance from employment for years. But don't let Mitch McConnell fool you into thinking he's trying to help hourly workers.