In the 1950s there was a famous comedy team called Abbott and Costello. One of their popular routines was a back-and-forth about the names of the players and their different positions. It went like this:
- Abbot: “At first base is Who. Second base is What. Third base is I Don’t Know.”
- Costello: “What is the name of the guy on first base?”
- Abbott: “Who.”
- Costello: “First base.”
- Abbott: “Yes.”
As you can imagine this goes around and around and round. So what does this have to do with Obamacare? I need to give you one more bit of background.
I started in Human Resources in the 1970s. The people who did work related to employees worked in Personnel. To me, Personnel was a derogatory term. A lot of times if an operations person couldn’t make it in operations, someone would say, “Put him in Personnel.” The implication was that anyone could do Personnel, and Personnel was the last stop before being fired.
Thankfully, the Personnel function started to evolve and people were required to have formal training to do that kind of work. And there were people who wanted to work in the “people” area. The name of the function likewise evolved and became known as Employee Relations, and then eventually Human Resources. In some organizations the function of the department didn’t change much, just the name.
In the 1990s there was a lot of noise coming out of Human Resources from managers who “wanted a seat at the table.” This was code for saying they wanted to be seen as equals to the heads of the other functions like sales, finance and operations. Companies that were more progressive were appointing heads of Human Resources and having them report to the CEO. This was symbolic of having gotten a seat at the table. The real struggle that was going on in Human Resources was that “old school” HR was tactical and uninvolved with the business of the company. Strategic HR was beginning to emerge at some of the more progressive companies. These companies saw HR as a strategic function and did their work and made their decisions based on the impact it would have on their business. Tactical work still needed to be done, but strategic HR was what was driving the function.
Fast forward to 2014. The "people" function from company to company is all over the map, ranging from tactical to strategic. Every HR function wants to be seen as strategic whether it has those capabilities or not. Then in January 2014, the U.S. got the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Of course, Obamacare has affected HR, but maybe not in ways we expected. Back this summer, I read a great article in Government Executive with the headline, “A Baseball Team Forfeited a Victory Trying to Avoid Obamacare.” The game was played in Chicago between the Giants and the Cubs a few months ago on a rainy evening. After a four-hour delay, the Cubs were declared a 2-0 winner. The Giants protested the call and won the protest declaring that the Cubs had failed “to properly wrap and spool the tarp after its last use.” The story-behind-the-story was that the 15-member crew for the Cubs was undermanned for the task of spreading the tarp. The previous winter the Cubs reorganized its game-day staffing schedule to get around the Obamacare requirements. They stipulated that no seasonal staff member could work more than 130 hours per month. If a worker put in more than 130 hours, then he or she would qualify as a full-time employee and have to be provided with employer-paid health care benefits (which are the law for businesses with more than 50 employees). As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, 10 crew members were sent home early that night by the bosses with little input from field-level supervisors.
In the end it didn’t matter as the Cubs won the suspended game two nights later, 2-1. Now let’s go back to where I started with Abbott and Costello and their “Who’s on first?” routine. In an organization with a strategic HR function, you do not want decisions about minimizing benefits costs to get in the way of the company’s mission – winning baseball games.
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