RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now to something that continues to be a political rallying cry, Obamacare. Starting this year, employers with 50 or more workers must offer health insurance. But a lot of farmers and labor contractors are complaining about the cost, and they're worried they may have an immigration headache on their hands. From KQED in San Francisco, April Dembosky reports.
APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Pickup trucks line the parking lot outside the agricultural center in Stockton. Inside, men with broad shoulders wearing denim jackets and cowboy hats listen to a lecture on Obamacare.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
DEMBOSKY: These guys are farm labor contractors. When farmers need a crew to pick cherries or pumpkins or asparagus, they call the contractor to send the workers.
JESSE SANDOVAL: We're basically a staffing agency in agriculture.
DEMBOSKY: Jesse Sandoval has about a hundred farmworkers on his payroll. Buying health insurance for all of them will cost $30,000 a month. Sandoval says there's just no way he can absorb that into his budget.
SANDOVAL: Oh, yeah, yeah, no, no, no, no. I mean, just the numbers aren't there. If my margin's 10 percent and I'm going to have to increase it, you know, 10 percent, well, that's not - that doesn't work.
DEMBOSKY: So like a lot of contractors, he's passing the bill onto the farmworkers as much as he's allowed under the Affordable Care Act. But for farmworkers who pick oranges or peaches for $10 an hour, the affordable rate is still too high.
AGOSTIN GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
DEMBOSKY: Agostin Garcia says the two contractors he works for near Fresno offered him insurance, but when he saw the price tag, he turned them both down.
GARCIA: (Through interpreter) For me, I'm the only one who works in my house. There's five of us in the family. It just wouldn't work. Either I pay for health insurance or I pay the rent and utilities.
DEMBOSKY: Garcia says when farm labor contractors hand out packets explaining the coverage, the page where you reject it is right on top.
GARCIA: (Through interpreter) I think they do it intentionally. They comply with the laws by saying I offered, but they know that nobody's going to accept it. They know that nobody's going to pay those amounts.
DEMBOSKY: The cost isn't the only thing about Obamacare stressing people out in the Ag industry. Some are worried about immigration problems. Employers have to file new healthcare forms with the IRS for all their workers whether they accept the insurance or not. Attorney Kaya Bromley says this will make it harder for some contractors to turn a blind eye if workers give them fraudulent documents.
KAYA BROMLEY: Now that there's more transparency because of all of the reporting, I think we're going to have a lot more data to understand how many illegal or undocumented workers we have.
DEMBOSKY: Among the contractors she consults for, Bromley has seen a range of quasi-legal and even illegal strategies to sidestep the health law.
BROMLEY: I have heard of employees who are choosing to opt-out because they want to fly under the radar. And I've also heard of employers who are urging the opt-out or at least encouraging it. And I warn all of them that they are going to be in big trouble.
DEMBOSKY: Farm labor contractors say they're stuck in a Catch-22. Technically, undocumented immigrants aren't eligible for Obamacare benefits. But employers can't admit that any of their workers may be here illegally, so they have to offer the insurance or face stiff fines from the IRS, maybe even a discrimination claim. Golinda Vela Chavez helps run a contracting company in Salinas. For her, talk of Obamacare mainly brings up frustration with the country's immigration system. She says the U.S. doesn't enforce the borders but then doesn't let people work.
GOLINDA VELA CHAVEZ: Now all of a sudden, the employer's evil.
DEMBOSKY: Contractors wonder how they're supposed to comply with the new healthcare law when there's still so much contradiction in the immigration system.
CHAVEZ: Our government, all they do is talk about it. They don't fix anything. They make everything worse.
DEMBOSKY: She says the Affordable Care Act is a cookie-cutter, and the complexities of the farming industry just don't fit. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky.
MONTAGNE: That story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.
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