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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Kern County doesn't have a choice about the Affordable Care Act.
"You must comply with this law or you must pay a penalty," County Administrative Officer Nilon told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
But figuring out exactly how compliance with the federal health insurance mandate -- by the time it takes effect on Jan. 1 -- will impact Kern County's extra-help workforce is the difficult task.
Hundreds of county extra-help employees work full-time hours for only part of the year and -- currently -- do not receive employee benefits.
Under the Affordable Care Act, they would be considered full-time employees and need to be offered health insurance at an annual cost to Kern County of between $6 million and $8 million.
The only alternative to paying, Nilon said, is to change how long extra-help employees are allowed to work.
Kern County department heads and other employees decried the impact of the law on their operations, going so far in some cases as to say it was impossible for them to comply with the law.
Chief Probation Officer David Kuge uses extra-help workers in residential probation facilities.
"We cover four 24-hour operation facilities that have to be manned at all times," Kuge said.
He said he would need to double or even triple the number of extra-help employees hired to be able to handle the responsibility, and he simply cannot hire that many people fast enough to handle the situation by the end of 2014.
Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall said he can't pull extra-help seasonal fire fighters away from the battle against a wildfire just because they reached 59 hours in a two-week pay period.
"To make it work here in California for the summer wildland fire season, we have to have extra help," Marshall said.
The Kern County Department of Human Services director, public defender, agricultural commissioner and Department of Mental Health director all expressed similar concerns.
Nilon said change is hard, but the county has little choice in the matter.
"To fully address the impacts of the Affordable Care Act, the county must either limit the number of extra-help employees, limit the number of hours worked by extra-help employees or limit the number of months worked by extra-help employees or some combination of those options," Nilon said.
Fortunately, the county has some time to work out the best solution to the problem and attempt to avoid both higher costs and logistical challenges, he said.
Supervisors confirmed that departments do not immediately have to make changes to their operations and that there may be some ways to get around the logistical problems.
Now the county will negotiate with the Service Employees International Union, which represents extra-help workers, and bring the issue back to supervisors for discussions.