HealthySF leaves businesses adrift

With an April 17 hearing before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals still potentially threatening the existence of HealthySF, rollout is finally under way for the $200 million mandate requiring San Francisco businesses to either pay for employee health care or contribute to The City’s universal health care program. San Francisco’s small businesses — which have long complained of being hampered by excess fees and restrictions not faced by neighboring competitors — seem to be reacting with considerable confusion.

Areas of confusion include shifts in deadlines and starting dates, differing requirements for businesses of varying sizes, lack of clarity about how much money to collect and what to do with it — and how to handle health care coverage for out-of-town residents employed at city workplaces. Apparently some business owners were not even aware that if they already provided a health coverage plan for their employees they were not required to pay additionally into HealthySF.

City Hall wants the $28 million it expects to receive toward HealthySF from local business owners. So it should have been prepared earlier with a plan for publicizing those new requirements more understandably to the thousands of employers affected. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which is pressing the lawsuit to overturn HealthySF, claims its 800 members received little direct explanation of their new responsibilities.

The efforts of Joannie Chang of the city Office of Labor Standards Contract are lauded even by GGRA Executive Director Kevin Westlye. Chang is the only city employee assigned full time to HealthySF compliance orientation, though now five others in the office are also involved. Chang’s near-daily schedule of appearances at seminars targeting business associations and human resource managers — 37 this year — is helpful, but certainly not enough to reach all the businesses needing clarification of HealthySF requirements.

A considerably wider use of city resources should be applied toward informing busy and hard-pressed small employers what is expected from them, as long as HealthySF withstands court challenges. In fact, more support is coming and hopefully it will soon reduce the remaining murkiness. A multilingual phone line — (415) 554-7892 — and a Web site are available, and a public-relations agency has been contracted.

Studies have repeatedly shown that the small businesses of San Francisco form a largely unheralded bulwark of our local economy. Yet by and large, The City’s government has done little to nurture small-business development, while being quick to add more fees, taxes and license/permit requirements than adjacent cities impose. If HealthySF is to gain the cooperation demanded from employers, at least the compliance process should be made as painless as possible.

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