Employers large and small are bracing for the full implementation of health care reform, but smaller businesses with at least 50 employees are especially anxious when it comes to a key question: do they provide benefits for full-time workers or pay a fine for each full-time worker not covered?

The employment sector could stand to benefit, particularly staffing agencies already adept at providing leaner workforces for employers in a number of industries, employment experts said.

A key provision of the Affordable Care Act, starting in January, will require employers with at least 50 full-time workers to either provide health coverage or pay a penalty of $2,000 per full-time employee.  

Staffing industry giants like Robert Half and Manpower have reportedly told investors that they see significant opportunity with the health law, according to Kaiser Health News.

The North Bay's largest staffing company, Sonoma-based Nelson, anticipates that the company will see an increase in work orders and inquiries stemming from health care reform-related employment issues. But it's not simply an increase in business that Nelson is awaiting, said Courtney Dickson, a spokeswoman.

"We're talking about it, absolutely. [Employers] are looking for help and want to know what their options are," Ms. Dickson said. "It's not just about new business for us; it's more that we want to be in this together. We want to keep them as clients."

The health care law also stipulates that any employee working at least 30 hours a week receive coverage, adding further staffing questions for a host of small employers, particularly in the food, beverage and hospitality industries, where seasonal workers are common, Ms. Dickson said.

"Those are a lot of our clients. That's part of the reason why we're so invested and we're seeing an uptick," in inquiries about health reform.

[caption id="attachment_71707" align="alignright" width="180"] Lisa Rogelstad[/caption]

The issue will be particularly vexing for employers with between 50 and 100 employees, said Lisa Rogelstad, chief executive officer of Star Staffing.  But while staffing agencies may stand to benefit from employers looking for a solution to the complicated question of how to address benefits, employers shouldn't just assume they can pass off the HR issues to a staffing agency.

"I would be very concerned about an HR manager of a company with 55 employees …thinking that using a staffing agency will be solve of all their health care reform act issues." Ms. Rogelstad said. "It's not that easy."

There are opportunities, but Ms. Dickson, of Nelson, said staffing companies, generally, are taking a more consultative role with health care reform, and other issues, rather than just using temporary workers. Indeed, the staffing agencies, some of whom offer benefits to temporary workers, are themselves being confronted with the very same questions as their clients.

"There is a lot of truth that using a staffing agency may result ... in ways to navigate or avoid health care reform for some companies with over 50 employees," Ms. Rogelstad of Star Staffing said.

But she cautioned that it's not a windfall by any means, and that it could simply be a shift in business versus a boon in work orders.

"While we may gain some new clients who find that staffing agencies are the best answer to solving their health care reform issues, we also plan on losing some business due to the fact that the clients who cannot avoid the health care reform costs will not be able to afford as much in their temp usage budgets."