Fulton temp workers may lose jobs

McClatchy-Tribune contributed to this article.

The jobs of 163 Fulton County employees are in limbo, due in part to the new federal health care law and a $74 million budget deficit.

Though designated as temporary employees, many have been working full time without benefits, in some cases for years. Now, the twin hammers of the Affordable Care Act — which requires large employers to provide health insurance to full-time employees beginning in 2015 — and the county budget deficit mean many of those employees could lose their jobs or see a reduction in hours. Others could be hired permanently.

Their fate will be decided department by department before the County Commission approves a 2014 budget in January.

“It’s a situation that should have been dealt with in the past,” commission Chairman John Eaves said. “It’s being dealt with now.”

Fulton County isn’t alone in wrestling with the Affordable Care Act. Employers across the country are reckoning with its implications.

The law requires employers with more than 50 full-time workers to provide affordable health insurance to those working 30 hours or more per week. If they don’t, they face penalties of $2,000 per employee.

About 96 percent of U.S. businesses have fewer than 50 employees and are exempt from the mandate, and most of those that aren’t exempt already offer health insurance. But many don’t offer coverage to employees working 30 hours a week. That could lead some employers to cut workers’ hours so they don’t have to offer them insurance.

Faced with those and other concerns, the Obama administration last summer postponed the “employer mandate” until 2015.

Most of Fulton County’s roughly 5,900 employees are permanent full-time or part-time employees, and the full-timers are eligible for health insurance and other benefits. More than 600 are temporary employees, hired on a short-term basis. Of those, 163 have become what Eaves called “permanent temporary” employees who often work full time but are not eligible for benefits. That would change when the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate begins.

Fulton County also faces a projected $74 million deficit heading into 2014 and is looking for ways to whittle it down. Eaves said it would cost $7.5 million if the county made all 163 employees full-time and provided benefits.

That’s not likely to happen. The commissioners recently revised county personnel regulations to prohibit temporary employees from working more than 29 hours a week or 1,500 hours a year.

That will force department heads to decide which employees should be let go, which should be hired permanently as part-timers and which should be hired full-time with benefits. Eaves said it’s too soon to know how many employees could lose their jobs or get fewer hours.

Department heads face tough decisions. Elections Director Richard Barron has asked for permission to permanently hire an employee who maintains election equipment. He’s been a temporary employee without benefits for more than eight years.

“You need somebody who’s completely vested in that job, where the employer’s committed to them,” Barron said. “He’s got a lot of institutional knowledge. We could lose him.”