By  on March 16, 1994

WASHINGTON -- While retailers turn their lobbyists loose to kill the idea that they must pay to provide all their workers health insurance, some are finding that their stance can be politically sensitive, especially with their uninsured employees.

A few have been ducking the spotlight when they lobby Congress.

"As long as they can keep their employees ignorant, they are better off," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D., Wash.). "I'm sure some of them actually believe the arguments they are making, but for the most part, they are foolish arguments."

McDermott is sponsor of a House health care reform package that calls for the federal government to fund universal health coverage via a 7.9 percent payroll tax. Retailers oppose his idea.

Retail lobbyists Steve Pfister, with the National Retail Federation, and Cecelia Adams, with the International Mass Retail Association, acknowledged that their retail members are sensitive to the difficulties of arguing against employer-mandated health insurance.

"While the issue has such a tremendous bottom-line impact on companies, the Clinton administration has simplified it [so that the] message that health insurance should always be there is a difficult one to disagree with," Pfister said.

Adams added that it's awkward for retailers to oppose mandates when their employee unions are backing the idea. Just last week, more than 100 organizations, including the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, sent a letter to every member of Congress endorsing employer mandates.

This month, Adams organized meetings between some 50 members of the House and Senate with representatives of 11 retail firms eager to convey their opposition to employer mandates. Noting she always encourages IMRA members to be open with the press, some of the retailers did not want any publicity during their Capitol Hill blitz, Adams said, because, "They wanted to speak more openly, and at this point, they did not want the press involved."

Studies show retailing insures just 35 percent of its work force, less than any other industrial sector. Retailers claim that being forced to insure everyone could result in a loss of more than 700,000 jobs nationwide and lower wages. They say it also could change the demographics of retail workers as employers turn to younger people excluded from mandated coverage under the Clinton plan.

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