I’ll be camping out with my son this week at a scenic spot in the mountains (without Ginger Snap, who doesn’t do outdoor sleeping):
Our plans almost changed after reports of thieves operating near our campsite. We were advised to join a larger group to be safe, but after giving it some thought I realized we’d be just fine on our own. You see, the reports were just anecdotal.
There was also a warning about scarce drinking water, suggesting we’d need to bring plenty of the bottled stuff. But I couldn’t find a legitimate, peer-reviewed paper to back it up. Who needs extra weight in his backpack when the information is nothing more than an anecdote?
And a friend told me he stumbled upon way too many snakes on his last trip to the same area. He said to make sure we pack heavy boots and a venom kit, but I thought: “All that preparation on account of another anecdote? Nah, not for me.”
Okay, I’ll get to my point now
If you caught the NBC Nightly News segment last week about one of the unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), you’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this. For those who missed it, NBC’s Lisa Myers reported speaking with “almost 20 small businesses and other entities around the country” and that “almost all said that because of the new law, they’d be cutting back hours for some employees.” Of course, NBC was merely adding to the extensive media coverage of organizations reducing workers’ hours to limit ACA costs. But the Obama administration doesn’t see why there’s such a fuss. According to Myers:
The White House dismisses these examples as “anecdotal.” The president’s top economic advisor [CEA Chair Jason Furman] told us “he sees no systematic evidence the health care law is having an adverse impact on the number of hours employees are working.”
So, should we take our government’s word and dismiss the examples as anecdotal?
Let’s first review some of the information that’s leaked into the press:
- Starting with the public sector, municipal governments are widely reported to have considered or enacted working hour changes due to Obamacare. Here are nine that have announced changes: Long Beach (CA), Dearborn (MI), Brevard County (FL), Floyd County (IN), Cedar Falls (IA), Plano (TX), Medina (OH), Brunswick (OH) and Chesterfield County (VA).
- School districts all over the country are also limiting certain employee workweeks to under the 30 hour threshold of the ACA’s employer mandate. Published reports include: Granite (UT), Chesterfield County (VA), Wake Schools (NC), Medina (OH), Southern Lehigh (PA), Fort Wayne (IN), Papillion-La Vista (NE), Springfield Platteview (NE), Westside (NE), Douglas County West (NE), Shelbyville Central (IN), Haysville (KS), Lafayette School Corporation (IN).
- Colleges that have limited certain employees’ hours include: University of Alabama, St. Petersburg College (FL), Hillsborough Community College (FL), University of Arizona, Arizona State University, Allegheny Community College (PA), Youngstown State University (OH), Stark State College (OH), Northern Virginia Community College, Palm Beach State College (FL) and Kean University (NJ).
- Restaurant chains and franchisees cutting employee hours include: Subway, Applebee’s, Five Guys, Denny’s, Papa John’s, Olive Garden, CKE Restaurants (Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s), Del Taco, White Castle, Wendy’s and Buffalo Wild Wings.
- While large corporations such as Regal Entertainment Group announced decisions to pare its full-time workforce due to Obamacare, others are obviously keeping their policy changes private to avoid bad publicity. Consider that Darden Restaurants took steps toward reducing employee hours last year only to back away after a flood of criticism and a dip in business. Consider also the curious case of Walmart, which quietly increased its part-time workforce at the same time it eliminated health insurance for newly hired part-timers, but somewhat implausibly denied that either change had anything to do with the health law. More recently, retailer Forever 21 denied changing its policies in response to Obamacare despite a leaked, internal memo calling for a reduction in full-time positions and a precise limit on part-timers’ working hours. Forever 21’s limit, wouldn’t you know, is 29.5 hours – exactly thirty minutes less than the threshold for the ACA’s insurance coverage requirement. Wegman’s, on the other hand, admitted that Obamacare compelled them to eliminate health benefits for those working less than 30 hours a week, but hasn’t made a public announcement about its mix of part-time and full-time employees. Other supermarkets have openly acknowledged limiting employee hours.
More broadly, NBC’s report dovetails with a Chamber of Commerce survey of small businesses finding that:
- 71% felt that Obamacare makes it “hard to hire,” and
- Half said they would either cut hours to reduce full-time employees or replace full-timers with part-timers.
Backing Dr. Furman’s soothing melody, cue the Obama chorus
It seems safe to conclude that there’s been a deluge of, well, anecdotal evidence of an ACA part-time jobs effect. But is it “systematic?” Significant? Does it matter? Dr. Furman isn’t alone in answering “no,” “no” and “no.” The blogosphere’s legions of Obamanomics Obamapologists (I know, too much word creation) are stepping up to second the White House’s claim that there’s nothing to see here. To them, “anecdotal” apparently means “not real, invisible.”
Of the defenses I’ve read, they typically ignore actual news reports such as those listed above. Instead, they offer bland observations about the employment statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Evan Soltas, for example, claims that the “next conservative argument against President Barack Obama’s health care law” is “wrong,” but backs his bold assertion with little more than a weak argument that jobs statistics are “far too volatile to draw reliable conclusions from small samples.”
Helene Jorgensen and Dean Baker take the denial strategy further, purporting to offer a rigorous look at the data but conveniently leaving out the May and June periods when the part-time jobs trend gained momentum. (Notice that the Jorgensen/Baker article is dated July 24, well after the May and June BLS releases became available).
But here’s the thing about the BLS data that’s been heavily massaged and filtered by the punditry: Many of the announced working hour changes remain in the implementation stage and aren’t yet reflected in the data, while other organizations are contemplating changes later this year or next. After all, the added costs that employers are scrambling to avoid won’t be in place until the delayed roll-out of the employer mandate on Jan. 1, 2015, at the earliest. And yet, the data is beginning to show the uptick in part-time work that you would expect to see in the future.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there aren’t times when it’s wise to question anecdotal information. But this isn’t one of them. In this case, a better word for the evidence would be “overwhelming.” Other good choices would be “tangible,” “real world” and “conclusive.” And policymakers and pundits who suggest otherwise are once again (as here and here) displaying a shameless dishonesty.
(The camping out in the mountains part of my introduction is true, although our campsite is safe, snake-free – we hope – and close to plenty of amenities :) .)