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An “employee” is different than a “contractor”, but those designations are often not very different in terms of job function. Are they different enough that large government subsidies and penalties  should depend on the distinction? Economist John C. Goodman explains why that question deserves a resounding “NO”!

Here’s an example: consider two individuals who perform the same job function and earn an identical wage of $13 per hour. One is an employee and the other is an independent worker under contract to the same company. The employee faces a high premium on the minimum health insurance policy mandated by Obamacare, which can carry a deductible of over $13,000 for a young, healthy family. The employee can pay the premium using pre-tax dollars, which provides some savings. The taxes saved are a subsidy, but an employee refusing coverage must pay a tax penalty under Obamacare. The contractor, on the other hand, might well qualify for subsidies on the Obamacare exchange, saving about 95% of the cost of the policy. Both individuals are subsidized, but the contractor gets considerably more in this case.

Now consider two individuals who earn $40 per hour, again an employee and a contractor. They are in a relatively high tax bracket. The contractor earns too much to qualify for Obamacare subsidies on the exchange but faces a tax penalty without coverage. The employee gets health coverage, albeit with a high deductible, paying pre-tax dollars at a significant discount. This time, the employee gets a big subsidy.

So essentially identical individuals are treated much differently. As Goodman says, that is terrible policy. Today, the distinction between employees and contractors is increasingly flimsy in terms of the services performed, and it is often a matter of convenience for employers and employees alike. Moreover:

… even though the main purpose of the health reform was to insure the uninsured, the law in many ways encourages a great many people to be uninsured – the fine is often much less than the cost of very unattractive insurance. …  current policy encourages everyone to game the system: Stay uninsured when healthy and then rearrange your work relationships if you get sick.

As Goodman notes, health coverage isn’t the only area in which this antiquated definition of the work relationship matters. His solution is to do away with the distinction between employees and non-employee workers altogether, eliminate the deductibility of health premiums for employees, end the Obamacare exchange subsidies, and instead provide a straight tax credit to every individual for the purchase of private health coverage. Loath as I am to admit any role for government in providing subsidies to other than the destitute, Goodman’s idea would at least level the subsidies without arbitrary distinctions and gaming of the system.

Similar considerations apply to arbitrary rules governing the distinction between full-time and part-time workers. The Obamacare employer mandate includes requirements on both the number of “employees” at a firm and an employee’s hours worked. Incentives are such that a change in the number of hour per week can dramatically alter the obligations of an employer and the government benefits available to workers (not to mention penalties to both), distorting economic outcomes in the productive sector of the economy. Limit the number of employees on your payroll and limit their hours if you want to avoid obligations. The negative impact on growth is particularly damaging to the self-sufficiency of low-income individuals. Again, government should remain neutral and stay out of regulating private labor transactions.

Obamacare is a mess on its own terms. Recall that it was to allow Americans with health insurance coverage to “keep their plans” if they chose to; it was to “bend the cost curve” in health care and insurance costs; and it was to provide coverage for the uninsured. Instead, Obamacare has disrupted insurance coverage for millions of Americans; created incentives for employers to reduce hours and employees; led to higher health care and insurance costs, created an adverse selection problem on the health care exchanges that threatens their sustainability; and more than 30 million Americans remain uninsured. The crucial role assigned by Obamacare to the formal relationship of workers to their hiring organizations has created perverse results.

Government should remain neutral in defining economic relationships. Allowing private actors to make their own informal arrangements or formal contracts is preferable both in terms of efficiency and fairness. Only they know the true economic realities “on the ground”. The distortions imposed by detached external rulemakers governing the  assignment of benefits are damaging and make adjustment to those realities more costly for everyone.