KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A new part of the Affordable Care Act kicks in this year. It requires small businesses to offer insurance to their full-time workers. A few years ago, some fast food restaurant owners tried to get around that by making more workers part time. Now some are rethinking their strategy. April Dembosky of member station KQED reports.
APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: A few cars idle in line at a Burger King drive-thru off Highway 99 in California's Central Valley.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thanks for choosing Burger King. Go ahead and order when you're ready.
DEMBOSKY: Inside, half a dozen workers in black uniforms scurry around grabbing packets of ketchup, stuffing paper bags with French fries.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Order number 22.
DEMBOSKY: Tiana Mua has worked here almost a year.
TIANA MUA: I'm part time.
DEMBOSKY: But she'd like to be full time.
MUA: 'Cause I want to be - to become independent.
DEMBOSKY: But at this Burger King, only the managers are full time. The company didn't respond to an interview request, but Mua says it's like that at fast food joints all over town. It's hard to get full time work.
MUA: I think 'cause, like, they're cutting back on all the jobs, so, like, a lot of people have been, like, let go and everything already.
DEMBOSKY: One reason is, the local economy is bad. People aren't eating out as much, and sales are down. But there's another reason that might explain why fast food employees aren't getting more hours - Obamacare. Starting this year, businesses with 50 or more employees have to offer health insurance to all full-time staff. Some fast food franchise owners figured they'd just make as many people as they could part time. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey found that nearly 60 percent of small franchise businesses said they would make personnel changes like this.
KAYA BROMLEY: The ones that did it successfully did it three, four years ago.
DEMBOSKY: Kaya Bromley is an attorney helping employers comply with the Affordable Care Act.
BROMLEY: But here's an interesting thing that I've seen in my actual practice.
DEMBOSKY: Bromley says some of those restaurant owners who cut hours to sidestep the health law now regret it.
BROMLEY: A lot of the fast food franchisees that did this are now coming back and saying, it was a great idea for reducing the number of people that I have to offer benefits, but now I can't run my restaurants.
DEMBOSKY: They tell her it's been a nightmare trying to manage a part time staff.
BROMLEY: Because you've got people who are less loyal. You've got people who are less skilled who don't understand the business, and there's more turnover.
DEMBOSKY: So Bromley has seen a lot of those restaurants reverse course.
BROMLEY: You know, employers think that there's a shortcut here or there, and then they realize, yeah, that shortcut really, you know, hurt me more than it helped me.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Large fries but a small drink. You got no bacon on the burger, right?
DEMBOSKY: At the Carl's Jr. in Chowchilla in the Central Valley, manager Silvia Campos tries to keep as many workers full time as possible. She says it makes her job easier.
SILVIA CAMPOS: It's a small town. It's really - for me, it's hard to find a really good employee. We have employees, and then for some - one reason, they don't like it and go. So it is really hard to keep it at good peoples.
DEMBOSKY: But Campos says some workers don't want more hours. Their part-time salary makes them eligible for government coverage through Medicaid.
CAMPOS: Some would say no, no, keep me on the part time, and that's good with me. Other insurance, say that you don't have to make that much money for qualifying.
DEMBOSKY: The company insurance costs $300 a month. Some workers say they're better off making less money and getting their coverage free from the state.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No, that's good. Thank you.
DEMBOSKY: For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky.
MCEVERS: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.
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