This article is from Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism. Please join their free mailing list, as this helps provide more public service reporting.
By Boniface Womber and Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
Amid a raging pandemic, Ohio’s agency responsible for looking out for workers’ welfare has started posting full-time temporary jobs with no benefits for its own workforce.
For example, this week the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) sought to hire an “electronic design specialist,” a job that requires a bachelor’s degree, years of experience, or some combination of both. The hours listed are full time, with a schedule that is “not negotiable” and the position is “not eligible” for benefits.
As total COVID-19 cases in the state soared to nearly 600,000 and deaths rose to almost 8,000, Eye on Ohio asked why the positions are listed without medical benefits when large employers have to give most of their workforce— even temporary workers— medical insurance eventually under the Affordable Care Act, or pay a penalty.
A spokesman for ODJFS said “Benefit eligibility under the ACA for temporary or part-time positions is determined based on the length of time employed and hours worked during that period of time.”
Eye on Ohio further inquired if the positions have a set end date and why officials listed positions with no health care as the chances of getting a debilitating disease have risen. Officials did not respond to multiple requests to comment.
Each job posting begins with, “The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services’ mission is to improve the well-being of Ohio’s workforce and families by promoting economic self-sufficiency and ensuring the safety of Ohio’s most vulnerable citizens.”
But it’s not clear if ODJFS’ own workers could be self-sufficient with its own positions: according to Heatlhcare.gov, a monthly premium for a nonsmoking family of four in Columbus is approximately $810. That’s about 24% of what an ODJFS electronic design would make after taxes. And doesn’t include money for a deductible, or other costs associated with getting sick.
Other temporary jobs don’t require a degree or much experience but make much less, such as a temporary customer service representative, who would have to shell out 30% of their post-tax income just for premiums for a similar family.
Benefits the Law Requires
When it comes to employee benefits, Lyndsey Barnett, chair of Graydon Law’s Employee Benefits’ Department, said technically “there is no law that any employer provides any employee any benefit regardless of the number of hours that they work.”
The Affordable Care Act does however place a penalty on what’s called Applicable Large Employers (ALE) if they do not offer “minimum essential coverage” after a specified waiting period.
According to IRS.gov, “applicable large employers have annual reporting responsibilities concerning whether and what health insurance they offered to their full-time employees (and their dependents).” Determining which employees are considered “full-time equivalent” isn’t always as simple as knowing who’s on the payroll for more than 30 hours per week. Also the ALEs are permitted a 90-day waiting period before employees are eligible for benefits so if a temporary position only lasts three months the employee may never qualify for benefits.
There’s also another version of this where employees denied benefits should actually qualify. When this happens the ALE may be subject to a “Shared Responsibility Penalty.” The IRS describes “An ALE member may choose either to offer affordable minimum essential coverage that provides minimum value to its full-time employees (and their dependents) or potentially owe an employer shared responsibility payment to the IRS.” So an employer can decide to pay the penalty instead of providing health insurance. “It’s a very strategic decision as to who employers are going to offer coverage to and it’s often much cheaper to pay the penalty than it is to provide health insurance coverage. So often employers do carve out select groups such as temporary employees from coverage,” Barnett said.
Helen Robinson, an employment attorney and former human resources executive said it’s probably part of a larger trend.
“The bottom line is that while use of temporary positions with no benefits may be new for public sector/government jobs, it is common in the private sector. I foresee even greater use of temporary positions because of the uncertainty created with the pandemic/Covid. Employers are hiring cautiously. I think the use of temporary employees is not so much about getting out of paying benefits, though it could be. It’s more likely designed to provide flexibility in the future if job cuts need to be made.” she said. “I would want the employer to add something like ‘may be eligible for health insurance’ or ‘no benefits, with the exception of health insurance’, etc. I use may be eligible because it depends on how long the temp position will last and how long the employee stays. So that doesn’t mislead an applicant but let’s them know they might be able to get coverage.
ODJFS has struggled to support the record-breaking number of applicants looking for unemployment benefits over the past year. According to the job postings on the ODJFS’ website, each of these positions are remote positions, but future employees will initially have to go to an ODJFS facility in Columbus in order to obtain the equipment necessary for each job as well as receive initial instructions for the position that a person applies for. However, it is noted in each posting that in the future, employees may be assigned to work inside an ODJFS facility instead of working from home.