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Originally published Saturday, September 28, 2013 at 9:04 PM

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Howard Schultz makes right choice not blaming Obamacare

It’s Howard Schultz against the corporate world on Obamacare.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I haven’t been kind to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz over the years. For instance, it still bugs me the way he sold out our SuperSonics.

But I’ve got to hand it to him now. He is one of the few big-corporate chieftains who is being straight with the public about something far more important than pro basketball: the impending Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare.”

“Starbucks won’t use the new law as an excuse to cut benefits or lower benefits for its workers,” Schultz declared recently.

Note his use of the term “excuse.” Because that is exactly what’s going on right now around the region and nation: Corporate CEOs are slashing health benefits, mainly for part-time workers, and then declaiming that “Obamacare made me do it!”

Take the big grocery-store chains — QFC, Safeway and so on. They have proposed dropping health coverage for part-time employees around here, which may end up touching off a strike. It’s Obamacare, they insist.

But is it? No.

At issue is that the new health law eventually will require big businesses to cover any employee who works 30 hours a week or more. There is no requirement that they cover part-time workers. But this absence of a requirement has somehow become a license to cut.

Under the law, the employer could extend them coverage but also doesn’t have to — just as has been the case for decades.

Yet scads of companies are slashing thousands of part-time workers off health care anyway, and citing Obamacare as the reason anyway.

In the central Puget Sound area, an estimated 8,000 of the 30,000 grocery store workers are part-timers. Currently, they get coverage if they work 16 hours or more, and pay about 20 to 30 percent of the monthly premium (the companies pay the rest).

The stores want to drop this coverage and make part-timers buy their own insurance in the state-run health exchange that opens this week as part of Obamacare. Home Depot is doing the same thing, as is Papa John’s Pizza and a number of retail chains.

This has led to denunciations of the new health reform for forcing companies to throw part-time workers off health care.

But is it? No. Howard Schultz is the proof.

Starbucks has upward of 100,000 part-time workers. Like the grocery stores, Starbucks gives health coverage to part-timers. But Schultz told them that under health-care reform: “Nothing is going to change. We are going to continue, as we have always done, to provide this benefit to you.”

What is going on here?

It could be that Howard Schultz is a bad businessman.

Or it could be that Obamacare is complex and confusing and so provides a convenient opportunity — an excuse — for companies to slash medical benefits and then blame the federal government. It could be they’re doing it because this is their big chance to shift more costs to the workers. And then, when some of those workers need subsidies, to further shift the costs to the taxpayers.

Trader Joe’s also is cutting its part-time workers off health insurance. But it is giving the workers $500 a year to help them buy insurance through the new Obamacare exchanges. Forty bucks a month seems skimpy to me, but Trader Joe’s is at least recognizing that the company and the workers are in this together.

While many big employers, and even some public institutions that have been slashing part-timer benefits, don’t seem to.

Schultz was asked about his status as cheerleader for Obamacare on CNBC the other day. To his fellow CEOs he said this:

“I would encourage them to find ways to provide the insurance and not figure out a way to either lower the hours or get around the system.”

That Howard Schultz. He is a dreamer.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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