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County grapples with employee hours, benefits issue

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Members of a personnel group said that it might be time to offer health benefits to some Bartholomew County employees who work less than 40 hours a week — if the county can figure out how to afford it.

The Bartholomew County Personnel Administrative Committee met Thursday morning as county officials continue to grapple with an hourly cap for part-time employees, lest the county be forced to pay for health insurance.

The change is being brought about by the upcoming implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The new law requires employers to offer health insurance to employees who work 30 or more hours, if an employer offers such coverage for other employees, said Cathy Dunn of Dunn & Associates, who administers the county’s self-funded health plan.

Employers face penalties that increase annually if those employees are not offered health insurance, Dunn said.

County Commissioners Carl Lienhoop and Larry Kleinhenz and County Council President Jorge Morales all said they were dissatisfied with previous compromises that led the county to keep some employees just below full-time employment so the county could avoid having to offer those employees health insurance.

“That was a bad, negotiated decision,” Lienhoop said. “When that department head went before the council, and they both stood there and they battled one another, and finally the department head said, ‘OK, can they work 38 hours and not be on the health insurance plan?’

“We don’t agree with 35- or 36-hour employees doing that routinely and not getting benefits.”

Commissioners and the County Council have floated a plan to limit part-time employees to 25 hours a week to avoid the insurance bind. But Lienhoop, Kleinhenz and Morales said it might be time for department heads to simply make the case that if an employee is needed for more than 30 hours, the employee should be offered health care.

Then it would be up to the council to figure out if that could be afforded at budget time and turn down the request if the money cannot be found.

Morales said he was not criticizing previous councils, but times have changed, and it is now time to do the right thing for employees. He said if managers take care of their people, it leads to better customer service and better productivity.

About 40 county employees work more than 30 hours but less than 40 and would be affected by the change, according to County Auditor Barb Hackman. The cost to insure all 40 would be about $560,000 a year, at an estimated $14,000 per person.

Hackman said several county departments already have begun asking that some personnel be moved to full time, rather than have their hours cut to fewer than 30.

Kleinhenz said that in some ways, having employees work almost full time but not quite enough to get benefits, is an injustice to the employee.

“Part time was intended to be a supplement to someone’s income. And it is hard for them to ever get out of that cycle of poverty when they are working part time, 30 hours a week,” Kleinhenz said.

Sheriff Mark Gorbett said he would prefer to have an annual hourly cap for his employees, rather than a week-by-week cap. For example, employees might have two 40-hour weeks of required training, and it would be easier for planning purposes to then divide out the remaining hourly pool of hours over the rest of the year, he said.

Gorbett said he is prepared to look into someone’s eyes and tell them they have to work less than 30 hours a week, but he would prefer it be for fiscal reasons, rather than just to avoid paying that employee’s insurance.

Members of the committee and the department heads also said they largely agreed that the part-time line should be drawn closer to 28 hours, than 25 hours a week.

Lienhoop said the next steps would be for the county attorney to prepare an ordinance for the County Commissioners to approve at one of their March meetings. A specific hour cap would be determined in that ordinance, but he said commissioners were leaning toward 28 hours.

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