Care for workers, so they can care for customers

November 30, 2012

Come to grips with the Affordable Care Act, because it’s not about to be repealed.

Meet Zane Tankel, the Christmas Grinch of Applebee’s.  

The owner and CEO of Apple-Metro, the restaurant chain’s New York franchise, froze expansion and hiring, and served up a threat of layoffs in a Fox Business News interview—because his business will have to comply with the Affordable Care Act and give workers of at least 30 hours per week a health insurance plan in 2014.

The Lempert Report sees his bluster as short-sighted and feels it could cost him customer support and talented employees, for several reasons. First, the latest Presidential election showed that people want healthcare protection. Second, budget-sensitive consumers (who go to eateries like Applebee’s) feel empathy for workers who rely more on tips than wages to get by. Third, his comments tend to dehumanize employees who prepare and serve food, and are the up-close face of his restaurant network. Fourth, if workers can’t afford to call in sick and miss a payday, and they can’t afford to see a doctor, they may show up ill—and that’s neither safe nor attractive to diners.

A workable model may be underway at Darden Restaurants, which employs 45,000 full-time workers at Olive Garden and Red Lobster. According to The Wall Street Journal, Darden will give employees a fixed sum of money to buy medical coverage through an online marketplace. They’ll pay the same out-of-pocket as under the current employer-sponsored plan. They’ll pay more only if they opt for a costlier plan, and they’ll pay less if they select a cheaper plan. Darden’s exchange approach still includes employer-backed group plans, notes The Food Institute.

Our issues with Mr. Tankel’s position also apply to supermarkets. No one wants a sneezing cashier to handle food, or a coughing deli clerk to slice meat. Food sellers must live up to the public safety trust they hold—and recognize how easily shoppers can switch stores (and the thousands of dollars they spend on household food each year) if they feel an employer is being less than fair to its workers.

Let’s take the high road on health care.