Obama slams Staples: Is Obamacare really costing workers hours?

President Obama went after office supply giant Staples in a recent interview, saying 'shame on' big companies that cut worker hours and use Obamacare as an excuse.  How big an impact, really, has Obamacare had on the hours for employees at companies like Staples? 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama pauses while speaking Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in the South Court Auditorium of the White House complex in Washington.

President Obama’s latest dustup isn’t with Congress or the GOP. It’s with an office supply company.

In a  Tuesday interview with Buzzfeed, the president was asked about reports that Staples had threatened to fire employees who worked more than 25 hours a week, blaming the new policy on the Affordable Care Act.

“I haven’t looked at Staples stock lately or what the compensation of the CEO is, but I suspect that they could well afford to treat their workers favorably and give them some basic financial security,” he responded. “It’s one thing when you’ve got a mom-and-pop store who can’t afford to provide paid sick leave or health insurance or minimum wage to workers… but when I hear large corporations that make billions of dollars in profits trying to blame our interest in providing health insurance as an excuse for cutting back workers’ wages, shame on them.”

Under Obamacare, firms with 50 or more employees are required to provide health coverage for employees who work 30 hours a week or more. Staples CEO Ronald Sargent made $10.8 million in total compensation in 2013, and the company reported net quarterly profit of $216.8 million in its latest quarterly report in November. 

Staples fired back Wednesday, saying its policy of restricting hours for part-time workers is more than a decade old.

"Unfortunately, the president appears not to have all the facts," Staples spokesman Kirk Saville said in a statement. "It's unfortunate that the president is attacking a company that provides more than 85,000 jobs and is a major tax payer."

It’s very rare for a big, public company to criticize a sitting president, so the response was the corporate communications equivalent of fightin’ words. But regardless of what prompted Staples’ policies, there is ample evidence suggesting that large companies are doing what they can to avoid increased costs related to Obamacare – including cutting part-time worker hours.

For one, they’re trying to change the law: Many Republican lawmakers and lobbyists for the restaurant and retail industries have been pushing to raise the required minimum for health coverage from 30 hours to 40 hours. A bill to do just that passed the House of Representatives in January, and it heads to the Republican-controlled Senate next. (Obama has said he would veto such bill). On a grand scale, the impact of such a change would be small – approximately 80 percent of workers log 35 or more hours per week, and most of them have access to health insurance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

But the small percentage of workers working less, chiefly in sectors like food and services, have seen their hours shrink. According to a Fivethirtyeight analysis, the share of workers logging between 24 and 29 hours ticked up slightly between 2009 and 2014; those working just above the Obamacare threshold, between 30 and 34 hours, has been trending downward.

Additionally, hundreds of public and private companies did cut worker hours in the lead-up to Obamacare’s implementation. Investor’s Business Daily is keeping a running tally.

Staples, meanwhile, recently announced a $6.3 billion deal to merge with Office Depot, its chief rival, a move to combat stiff outside competition from the likes of Walmart and Amazon. Its cuts of worker hours came under fire over a year ago, prompting a Change.org petition that garnered over 200,000 signatures.

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