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Obama criticizes Staples over employment policies

AStaples truck delivered office supplies in San Diego, Calif.Mike Blake/REUTERS/Files

President Obama’s criticism of employment policies at Staples Inc. has thrust the Framingham retailer into the center of a heated debate about the fate of part-time workers in the age of the Affordable Care Act.

Staples has reportedly threatened to fire part-time workers if they clock more than 25 hours in a week — a level low enough to avoid triggering a health insurance obligation for the company.

In an interview Tuesday with the website Buzzfeed, Obama criticized Staples and other big employers for finding ways to skirt the law at the expense of low-wage workers.

“I haven’t looked at Staples stock lately or what the compensation of the CEO is, but I suspect that they could well afford to treat their workers favorably and give them some basic financial security, and if they can’t, then they should be willing to allow those workers to get the Affordable Care Act without cutting wages,” Obama said.

“It’s one thing when you’ve got a mom-and-pop store who can’t afford to provide paid sick leave or health insurance or minimum wage to workers — even though a large percentage of those small businesses do it because they know it’s the right thing to do — but when I hear large corporations that make billions of dollars in profits trying to blame our interest in providing health insurance as an excuse for cutting back workers’ wages, shame on them,” the president said.

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Staples responded Wednesday to Obama’s comments, saying “the president appears not to have all the facts.” The company’s policy on part-time hours is more than decade old and predates the Affordable Care Act, said Kirk Saville, a Staples spokesman.

“It’s unfortunate that the president is attacking a company that provides more than 85,000 jobs and is a major taxpayer,” Saville said.

The latest exchange isn’t the first time Staples has found its way into political headlines.

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Republican Mitt Romney, the president’s 2012 election opponent, often cited Staples as his greatest investment and job-generating success when he led the Boston private equity firm Bain Capital. Tom Stemberg, founder of Staples, was a vocal Romney supporter and often criticized Obama on the campaign trail.

The Affordable Care Act requires businesses that employ more than 50 workers to pay health insurance benefits for anyone who exceeds 30 hours in a work week. A mandate went into effect earlier this year that requires companies with more than 100 employees to provide affordable insurance to 70 percent of its full-time workforce or pay fines.

The rules have triggered maneuvers in the retail industry, a business known for low wages and a largely part-time workforce, to avoid paying extra costs.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the country’s largest private employer, Target Corp., and Home Depot Inc., among other retailers, have eliminated their part-time benefits programs.

The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade group, has opposed the Affordable Care Act, saying it would drive up expenses for retailers. The group disapproved of the definition of a full-time employee as anyone who works more than 30 hours in a week.

Staples came under fire more than a year ago when employees said the company introduced a policy limiting part-time workers to 25 hours a week. In a story posted this week by Buzzfeed, anonymous workers said the company recently threatened to fire employees who did not comply with the rules.

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Tom Juravich, a professor of sociology and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that cutting hours to reduce costs is par for the course in retail.

“Employers have for many years now been trying to keep people on part-time status to avoid having to pay benefits for them,” Juravich said. “The problem is that companies like Staples and Walmart are doing quite well by limiting the costs they pay for their workers.”

Obama’s comments give legitimacy to calls around the country for better treatment of low-wage workers, Juravich said.

“This is not just a campaign of young activists,” he said. “These are campaigns supported by the president of the United States.”


Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna.