The delay of the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate is a favorable development for the labor market, but the employer mandate is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the labor-market distortions that the law has scheduled to come on line next year.
The Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate will eventually levy a penalty on large employers that do not offer affordable health insurance to their full-time employees. The penalty is based on the number of full-time employees and adds about $3,000 to the annual cost of employing each person.
Employers have been complaining about the penalty, saying it will reduce the number of people they hire and cause them to reduce employee hours. Even economists and commentators supporting the law acknowledge that per-employee penalties reduce hiring by raising the cost of employment.
Economists have traditionally recognized that it hardly matters whether a tax is levied on employers or on employees, especially in the long run. In the employee-tax case, the employee pays the tax directly. In the employer-tax case, the employee pays the tax indirectly through reduced pay, because employer penalties reduce the willingness of employers to compete for people (Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has provided some good evidence in support of this widely accepted economic proposition).
Among other things, employment, employer costs and employee take-home pay would be essentially the same if the government levied a $3,000 fine on workers for having a full-time job with a large employer that does not offer health benefits, rather than levying the fine on employers on the basis of their full-time personnel, as the Affordable Care Act does.
But the political optics of the two policies are dramatically different. Large businesses can supposedly afford $3,000 per employee, while many employees could not afford another $3,000 bite out of their paychecks. Like it or not, economics’ equivalence results tells us employees will have to afford what amounts to a tax on them beginning in 2015, pursuant to the Treasury Department’s decision to begin collecting the employer penalty in that year.
For the purposes of understanding the state of the labor market, it doesn’t really matter whether individuals would be paying a tax for having a full-time job or receiving a subsidy for not having a full-time job. Either policy would reduce the gap between the income of full-time employees and everybody else. The ultimate result will be less full-time employment, in an amount commensurate with the size of the tax or subsidy.
The Affordable Care Act offers subsidies for people without work or in part-time positions that far exceed $3,000 per employee per year, which makes the employer mandate only a small piece of the law’s employment effects.
The law’s other new work-disincentive provisions, still on schedule for next year, include (i) a sliding income scale that sets premiums for people who buy health insurance on the new marketplaces, (ii) a plan for premium assistance that essentially resurrects the Recovery Act’s subsidy for what are known as Cobra benefits, allowing employees who have left a job to continue to participate, for a limited time, in their former employer’s health plan, in a more comprehensive form and (iii) hardship relief from the individual mandate.
As an example of these provisions, I explained last week how, even without the employer penalties, the premium assistance plan sharply penalizes full-time employment in favor of part-time employment. In combination, the provisions going into effect next year are two or three times larger than the employer mandate by itself, depending on the type of worker and the industry of employment.
Proponents of the Affordable Care Act, including a number of economists, have yet to acknowledge that so many provisions of the act have, from a labor economics perspective, so much in common with the employer mandate. But labor-market distortions are a common feature of several significant parts of the act and are an important part of what has happened in our labor market.
Whatever labor market benefits accrue from delaying the employer mandate could be had many times over by delaying the entire Affordable Care Act.