Obamacare and Unintended Consequences

Is it too far-fetched to believe that this new Obamacare law could have unintended consequences?  People don’t like being forced to spend their hard earned money, especially on things they don’t want.  And they hate it even more when it results in a reduction in lifestyle or status.   Read on.

I have been a workplace violence prevention consultant since 1992.  When I was Vice President of Resources for Living, I worked closely with Wal-Mart to develop their workplace violence prevention strategy in the 90s and trained their (and other Fortune 500) Loss Prevention team to manage threats.   For several years I was on call at the home office in Bentonville to collaborate with a multi-disciplinary team to develop effective responses to incidents that were considered threatening.   The company I worked for was an Counseling Service that was the brainchild of Sam Walton and one of my graduate school professors.  We had a bank of professional counselors who took calls from Associates and their families to help them with any personal issue they had.  We provide over 40,000 counseling sessions each year, free of charge to these employees.

We also created a manager’s hotline to help managers support their Associates who frequently approached them with a personal need which they were not equipped to handle.  Sometime we would coach the manager.  Sometime the manager asked us to offer support directly to the Associate. 

From time to time managers found themselves facing unusually challenging personnel issues.   These were situations that had the potential to result in violence, such as when they became aware of an associate who was the victim of domestic violence and it threatened to come into the stroe, or when an associate demonstrated behaviors that were way out of the norm or appeared to be more threatening to others.

This was in the mid to late 90s and a time when workplace violence was synonymous with “going postal”, due to the rash of workplace violence outbreaks experienced by the U.S. Postal Service around that time.  What was interesting to me was that the two entities were about the same size, around 800,000 employees.  Yet they were so different.  Wal-Mart had never experienced a disgruntled employee committing violence in the workplace.  I was curious as to what made the difference, and continued to open my training with Managers, Executives and Loss Prevention Associates with this discussion.  

The obvious things were also what you might read in most workplace violence prevention literature.  Things such as the culture of respect for the individual that was foundational to Wal-Mart, versus, the hierarchical, “us-versus-them” culture that permeated the unionized Post Office.  The direct and respectful communications, and Open Door culture that were apparent at Wal-Mart, versus the “tell it to your union steward” mentality that frequently reflected the level of concern that many post office managers demonstrated to their employees.

The one thing that I had never read in the literature or heard from the “experts” in this field became apparent to me during this time.  The people who worked in both organizations on the front line were comparable, meaning that they came from similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.  One primary differentiator at the time was that the Post Office paid a much higher wage and had much richer benefits than Wal-Mart.  A person with a high school education working at the post office could pull in considerably more money than a similarly qualified person workng at Wal-Mart.  Now don’t feel sorry for the Wal-Mart employee.  They were being paid competitively to jobs similar to theirs in similar locations.   If a Wal-Mart employee lost their job for any number of reasons, they could easily walk across the street to another retailer or similar establishment and get a job at a similar pay rate.  This was simply not the case for the post office employee.  When this person’s job was threatened and they begin to look around to find a job with their experience and education level, the could find nothing.  They were looking at jobs with half the pay or less.  When their jobs were threatened by their managers, or when they were feeling as if they were not being heard or respected, they had few alternatives for employment where they could maintain their lifestyle.  It’s no wonder that the place erupted in so many explosive episodes.  Now, to the credit of the post office, after experiencing several of these types of incidents, they began to change the culture and work more closely with the union to build a more respectful environment.  They trained their managers and changed out the ones who could not make the adjustment.

You are probably asking, what does this have to do with Obamacare?  The imposition of an unwanted tax that impacts a person’s lifestyle or family’s financial well-being frequently triggers irrational responses from people, as they try to regain control or make a statement about the unfairness of a situation.  While there have certainly been problems with the health insurance exchange website, I believe that one of the reasons that the enrollment figures are currently so low, is that people go on line and see what the costs will be and simply refuse to participate, in defiance of the law.  (I mean, if the president can do it, why can’t they?) So far, no one has yet been forced to pay up.  When that finally happens (either due to an illness without insurance, or fines for non-participation) people’s lifestyle will be impacted.  They will have to make choices between protecting their family with healthcare insurance, or feeding, clothing, or providing transportation for them.  When these essentials of life are threatened, people don’t always behave rationally.  They frequently look for people to blame.  When their voice is not heard and they don’t know what else to do, they begin to look for justice, or for ways to regain control.  That’s when there is escalating potential for greater irrationality.  That is when their is greater likelihood for the story to change.

When people in the media investigate incidents of violence, they and the friends and neighbors of the perpetrator often claim that “he just snapped”.   Those of us who do this type of consulting know that people don’t snap.  There are always signs that lead to the violence, or triggers that become the final straw that leaves them resorting to violence as their method of resolution. 

I will never forget the time I was flying with one of my colleagues into Tampa, Florida.  When we landed, the news was reporting an incident of violence in which a beach maintenance worker, who had been terminated a couple years prior, returned to his work station and killed three or four of his former co-workers.  As I read heard the news, I recall commenting to my colleague, “I wonder what the trigger was that set him off today?”  The following day’s news report described the gentleman who had been terminated.  They mentioned that he had been having difficulty finding another “good” job.  Then they mentioned that they had learned from people they interviewed that the day before the incident of violence, his hot water heater and gone out, and he was distraught because didn’t have the money to replace it.  I told my colleague, “That was the trigger.”  Even two years after his termination, he blamed his treatment by these colleagues and the people who terminated him for his current situation.  He had held it together for several years, until it seemed as if it was out of his control.  Irrational?  Yes.  Unjustifiable?  Definitely.  Tragic?  Yes.

This kind of irrationality is just one of the reasons companies offer severances and outplacement services to people they terminate.  It gives them a softer landing and a focus on a better future.  Unfortunately, the option of personalized outplacement is being traded for sterile online interactions with little resemblence to the support that is needed for effective outplacement.  I am not seeing the soft landing for those impacted by the skyrocketing cost associated with Obamacare.   I believe the outrage by the American people is what is causing the regular delays of the implementation of the law.  The question that must be answered is, Is it possible that we may see more irrational responses as the reality of this new law is felt, if it is ever fully implemented?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *