The news came as a shock: Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, would not offer health benefits to its new part-time employees, the company said Friday.
But perhaps it shouldn't have been so surprising, since only 16 percent of employers offer health insurance to part-timers, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's most recent Employer Health Benefits Survey.
Wal-Mart has provided health insurance for part-time workers since 1996, said company spokesman Greg Rossiter.
"There's been a really striking decline in employer-based coverage for these part-time workers," said Sara Collins, vice president of the Affordable Health Insurance Program at the Commonwealth Fund, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group.
The health care law that Congress passed last year is unlikely to change that. While part-time workers will have access to new, subsidized coverage on the individual market, the Obama administration's signature legislative achievement provides little incentive for employers to cover workers who are not full-time staff.
During the health care debate, Wal-Mart came out as an early supporter of an employer mandate to require that companies provide insurance for their workers.
The retailer partnered with the Service Employees International Union to write a June 2009 letter to the White House on the issue. "We are for shared responsibility," they wrote. "Not every business can make the same contribution, but everyone must make some contribution. We are for an employer mandate which is fair and broad in its coverage."
The Affordable Care Act that Congress passed in 2010 does include such a provision. It requires large employers with more than 50 workers to provide health insurance. If an employer does not, it is subject to a fine of $2,000 for each worker.
The law, however, is largely silent on the subject of part-time workers, and there are no penalties for not offering them coverage.