September 7, 2007 Volume 108 Number 17

Oregon to divulge employers with workers on low-income benefits

The state agency that administers food stamps and Medicaid has agreed to give Oregon lawmakers what some have been seeking for four years: the names of employers whose workers are getting public assistance.

In an Aug. 14 letter to State Rep. Diane Rosenbaum, Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) government relations director Patricia O’Sullivan promised a report in the fall of 2008. DHS already asks for the name of the employer, if any, on applications for food stamps and the Oregon Health Plan. But up to now, that information has stayed on the paper applications in DHS district offices. Starting this fall, DHS will add a field to its database system so that it can capture the information automatically.

In other states where such information is publicly available, union activists have used it to publicly shame low-wage employers, and to argue for employer health care mandates. Wal-Mart is the prototypical large employer whose workers frequently earn low enough wages that they can’t afford the company’s health plan and end up qualifying for taxpayer-funded benefits.

Earlier this year when the Oregon Legislature was in session, Rosenbaum had pushed a bill dubbed “the Responsible Employer Act” that would have required the information be made public; it passed the House, but failed to pass the Senate. Both chambers were controlled by Democrats this year for the first time since 1991.

“Our intention was that elected leaders take a look at whether taxpayers are subsiding large profitable employers by paying for benefits they aren’t providing,” Rosenbaum told the Labor Press.

In the end, DHS administrators decided to respond to the intent of the legislation. O’Sullivan cautioned that the data is self-reported and isn’t verified, and that it represents a snapshot in time based on the day the application was completed.

Still, lawmakers will find it useful, said State Rep. Brad Witt, who is also a staff member at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555.

“Now the public will have an opportunity to see which companies are shifting payroll costs to the taxpayers,” Witt said.

In a letter to House Democrats, Rosenbaum called the DHS decision a victory for working families and responsible employers. “I am sure some employers will be those we expect and others will be a surprise.”