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How Health Care Reform Could Lead to Worker Harassment

health reform . / Credit: Healthcare image via Shutterstock

Employees may face a surge in harassment from their employers when new health care laws go into effect, new research suggests.

A study by professors at the University of Illinois found that as businesses deal with the cost increases associated with the new health care legislation, the possibility emerges that employers will harass or retaliate against employees in order to avoid the law's financial penalties.

Peter Molk, an expert in insurance law and one of the study's authors, said the Affordable Care Act incentivizes employers and employees to push in essentially opposite directions.

[Are You Ready? Looming Health Care Changes Worry Businesses]

"There are safeguards that have been enacted as part of the law, and some already exist to protect employees from what employers might do," Molk said. "But we've identified other areas of the law where it looks like employees aren't as protected as we would want them to be."

Under the Affordable Care Act, which begins in January 2015, employers with 50 or more full-time employees must offer health care coverage for employees or face a fine. Employees also must obtain coverage or pay a penalty.

The researchers said employers have three options under the new law — provide adequate coverage, inadequate coverage or no coverage at all — each of which has some holes in the protection they provide employees.

Molk said most employers would like to minimize costs as well as avoid any and all penalties, and one way of doing so is by offering inadequate coverage and pressuring employees to avoid buying subsidized coverage through the individual exchanges.

"In this circumstance, what's not currently protected is the way that some employers could pressure employees or tell employees, 'Look, if too many of you go out and buy insurance this way, then we're going to have fire people or cut wages,’" Molk said. "That’s not protected, and that’s something that we think should be protected in appropriate circumstances."

The study's authors said other employer actions could include restructuring their workforce from full-time to part-time employees solely to avoid having to pay fines under the law, or as polling employees on the health care coverage they plan to take.

Molk said surveying employees on their intentions is a tricky issue.

"You want to prevent that undesirable behavior, but we also don’t want to keep employers from having some flexibility about determining what their future costs are going to be," he said. "You want to allow businesses to continue making legitimate, fundamental business decisions, but you also don’t want them using it as a smokescreen for undesirable behaviors, like moving full-time workers to part-time hours just to avoid the Affordable Care Act."

With nearly a year and half until the law goes into effect, Molksaid there is still time to tighten it up.

"Employees need to be aware of these conflicts, and Congress could patch these loopholes fairly easily before the law goes fully into effect," Molk said.

The study, co-authored by Suja Thomas, is scheduled to bepublished in the Cornell Law Review Online.

Follow Chad Brooks on Twitter @cbrooks76 or BusinessNewsDaily @BNDarticles. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.