Part-timers to lose pay amid health act's new math

Instead, pruning the hours of part-timers has attracted far more interest.

"That will be a widespread strategy," said Dede Kennedy-Simington, vice president at Polenzani Benefits in Pasadena. "Employers will be making sure their payroll system can flag when part-time workers are getting close to the cap they set."

Long Beach officials said they studied the various budget options and opted for a plan that should affect only a small portion of its workforce. The city estimates about 200 part-time workers will be among the most affected by a reduction in hours, representing about 13% of its overall part-time staff. The city calculated that the federal penalty for dropping coverage completely for its 4,100 full-time employees would have been about $8 million.

"We're in the same boat as many employers," said Tom Modica, the city's director of government affairs. "We need to maintain the programs and service levels we have now."

Sievers, the outreach coordinator, has worked on and off for the city since 1994. She agreed that the city has experienced tough fiscal times as many municipalities have since the recession. But the city expects a budget surplus of $3.6 million for the coming year.

"Many part-timers are already struggling to get by in these jobs," Sievers said.

Virginia's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, announced this year that all part-time state employees should work 29 hours or less to avert the 30-hour threshold. Darden Restaurants Inc., which owns the Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, began shifting to more part-time workers last fall in a much-publicized test to keep a lid on healthcare costs. Then Darden dropped the plan after being roundly criticized.

Some California lawmakers worry that the federal penalties for not providing health coverage aren't enough of a deterrent. They have proposed additional state fines to prevent major retailers, restaurant chains and other employers from restricting hours and dumping more of their workers onto public programs such as Medi-Cal. Opponents say the proposal is unnecessary and could deter companies from adding workers.

Some supporters of the Affordable Care Act say they welcome a gradual shift away from employer-sponsored coverage if new government-run exchanges give consumers a choice of competitively priced health plans. Some low- and middle-income workers who qualify for federal subsidies may end up paying less by buying their own policy next year compared with their contribution toward employer coverage.

"If the exchanges work," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara and a labor expert, "then I'd be in favor of more people getting covered that way rather than through employers."