Getting Schooled | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Getting Schooled

Obamacare meets the anti-tax agenda, and local teachers may pay the price

Ever since Barack Obama's health-care reforms were upheld by the Supreme Court, we've heard dire warnings about the chaos that will result. The guy who owns Papa John's pizza, for one, sounded the alarm that providing health insurance to his workers could raise the price of a pizza ... by 14 cents. To which the proper response is: "Here's a quarter. Treat your workers like human beings, and use whatever's left to buy something pretty for Mrs. John, you cheapskate." 

More recently, though, the reforms have created a challenge for workers at a more sympathetic employer: the Community College of Allegheny County.

CCAC's workforce includes 400 part-time, temporary faculty and clerical employees who work at least 30 hours a week — the threshold at which "Obamacare" requires employers to provide health benefits. CCAC estimates those benefits would cost $6 million, money it doesn't have. So the school is cutting workers' schedules to less than 30 hours per week, ensuring the law won't apply. "These temporary positions have been filled by individuals who make a valuable contribution," acknowledged CCAC statement. But "this is unfortunately the only action we can take." 

The move prompted some conservative cackling in the "hope they voted for Obama LOL" vein. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ruth Ann Dailey, for one, opined that the episode proved that "left-wing theorists have no understanding of how free markets work." 

Actually, some left-wingers understand all too well. That's why many of us supported a more radical health-care overhaul: a Medicare-for-all-style program totally independent of employers. Tying insurance to a person's job, we argued, means workers suffer from the boss' ill will ... or in this case, bad fortune. 

CCAC's finances are constrained largely by state funding cuts — cuts exacerbated by Gov. Tom Corbett's decision to levy one of the nation's lightest taxes on natural-gas drilling, while leaving products like smokeless tobacco untouched. By one liberal group's estimate, a gas tax like the one levied in West Virginia could have produced $387 million between 2009 and 2011 — nearly twice what Pennsylvania took in.

As it was, while Chevron and Skoal got sweetheart deals, CCAC suffered $3.5 million in state cuts — enough to pay more than half of its $6 million insurance bill. It could cover the rest if Allegheny County kept CCAC's funding at the 2012 level, instead of cutting it by $2.5 million, as county officials plan. (In fairness to the county, next year's funding is still slated to be slightly above 2011's.)

"Our preference is certainly to extend health insurance to those employees," says CCAC spokesman David Hoovler. "If we were to receive that $6 million, we'd be glad to do so."

Corbett's "no new tax" pledge arguably hurts CCAC even more than, say, Penn State or Pitt. Many community-college students enroll during recessions to gain new job skills: They can't bear tuition hikes as easily as college undergrads, who have their entire careers to pay off student loans.  

This isn't all Corbett's fault, since other schools, including those not dependent on the state for funding, may follow CCAC's example: Youngstown State University has already announced similar plans. "I suspect that the floodgates are going to open," says Matt Williams of the Ohio-based New Faculty Majority, which advocates for part-time faculty. 

But while Williams is an active (if idiosyncratic) Republican, and no fan of Obamacare, he says he won't blame Obama if faculty hours are cut. Too many schools already act like ... well, like corporations. Although salaries for college administrators have grown, Williams says, "You've got people at the front of the classroom saying education makes a difference, and meanwhile they're on food stamps."

At least they aren't alone. As some corporations dodge the taxes that support CCAC, others ask taxpayers to cover their own health-care costs. In 2006, for example, the Philadelphia Inquirer found that state Medicaid rolls included nearly 8,000 employees of Walmart alone. This is the "free market" conservatives accuse Obama of tinkering with: It's a market where companies cling to their profits, while transferring their costs to everyone else. Where CEOs bemoan a few extra pennies for a pizza, in order to avoid sharing the pie.

That may be Obamacare's undoing. Not giving health benefits to workers, but giving corporate America the benefit of the doubt.

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