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AFL-CIO, Democrats propose benefits law

A nationwide drive by organized labor to force Wal-Mart and other big companies to pay a larger share of their employees' health care costs is taking hold in Florida, but its prospects are bleak in a probusiness Legislature.

The Florida AFL-CIO and its Democratic allies in the Legislature on Tuesday proposed "Fair Share Health Care."

With rallies, leaflets and e-mail blasts in the coming weeks, they hope to apply enough pressure to force every Florida business with more than 10,000 workers to spend the equivalent of at least 9 percent of the company payroll on health care benefits. A company could contribute less than 9 percent, but would have to contribute the difference to a special fund for workers' coverage.

"I know the Chamber of Commerce and everyone else will come out with guns blazing against this legislation," said Florida AFL-CIO president Cindy Hall. "But they cannot shirk their responsibility."

Supporters of the effort acknowledged Wal-Mart is their biggest target, but not the only one. Publix, McDonald's, Winn-Dixie and Wendy's would be affected by the proposed legislation.

The motivation, advocates say, is to force companies to spend enough on employee health benefits to keep low-wage workers off of Medicaid. Democrats complained that Wal-Mart gets state tax incentives to build more big-box stores, but then has many of its workers without health coverage.

"We should not be subsidizing businesses with your tax dollars, and then they turn around and give us Medicaid patients," said Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach, a sponsor of the legislation with Sen. Walter (Skip) Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale.

"This is not antibusiness legislation. This is propeople legislation," said Campbell, a candidate for attorney general.

Bucher said more than 22,000 people who work for the state's 10 largest employers are on Medicaid. She said she got figures from the Department of Children and Families on DCF clients who listed their employers and said they received Medicaid benefits. One of those employers is Miami-Dade County, Bucher said, and the others are Walgreen's, Burger King, Target and Taco Bell.

Business groups attacked the proposal as a "payroll tax" that will do nothing to curtail rising health care costs. A Wal-Mart spokesman said the unions' true objective is not health care coverage but unionizing Wal-Mart's growing work force, which is approaching 100,000 in Florida.

Full-time Wal-Mart employees make an average of $9.85 an hour, the company says.

Wal-Mart spokesman Eric Brewer said that by targeting the largest employers in Florida, labor is mobilizing much of the business establishment to fight the proposal.

Brewer said 70,000 Wal-Mart employees signed up for coverage last fall in a companywide expansion drive.

The "Fair Share" plan in Florida is modeled after a similar effort in Maryland that became law over the governor's veto. The Washington Post reported that in the month prior to the Maryland General Assembly's action, two large labor unions donated more than $36,000 to 48 state legislators.

Similar union-backed drives have taken hold in more than 30 other states.

"It's a terrible idea," said Mark Wilson, senior vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, adding that most uninsured workers in Florida work for small businesses, not the 10 largest employers.

Times staff writer Joni James and researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at sbousquet@spttmes.com or (850) 224-7263.

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