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jimmygomez.jpgCalifornia labor unions have launched a lobbying, direct mail and online advertising blitz in support of legislation to penalize large employers if wages they pay are not high enough to keep workers off Medi-Cal rolls.

"We're seeing that there's a small number of large employers that are trying to game the system, and this is something that the Legislature, I think, has a responsibility to address," said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation.

The campaign has collected about 12,000 petition signatures in support of Assembly Bill 880, bought online advertising expected to be seen by a million people before week's end, and is bringing dozens of union members to the Capitol every day this week to lobby lawmakers, Smith said.

Political fliers also have been sent to constituents of Assemblyman Brian Nestande, a Palm Desert Republican, after he voted against the union-sponsored bill in the Assembly's Health Committee.

The campaign might end up costing six figures, Smith said.

"This is a huge issue for workers," he said of legislation supported by the campaign, Assembly Bill 880.

The labor federation and United Food and Commercial Workers are joint sponsors of AB 880, which has passed policy committees and is headed for the Assembly floor. Los Angeles Democratic Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez introduced the bill.

AB 880 would affect Walmart and various restaurant chains and janitorial firms, Smith contends. It would penalize employers of 500 people or more if their workers qualify for Medi-Cal coverage.

Existing federal law allows businesses of 50 employees or more to be penalized if their full-time workers are forced to buy health insurance from a new state exchange because they are neither covered by an employer plan nor eligible for Medi-Cal.

AB 880 would lower the threshold further and encompass part-time workers, but it would apply only to the state's largest employers. The penalty would be roughly the sum necessary to provide health insurance.

A Walmart spokeswoman referred calls about the bill to a business coalition opposing it, which released the following statement from Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Association:

"AB 880 has overwhelming opposition from nearly every industry in this state. This is one of the worst bills introduced and it will have devastating impacts on jobs, our economy and the implementation of Obamacare."

Smith said that Nestande - who is eyeing a congressional run in 2014 against Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz - is the first lawmaker targeted by the union's AB 880 blitz but may not be the last.

"The goal certainly is to send a message to constituents in that district, and I think other Republicans are going to see it," Smith said. "It sends a signal that this is a serious issue and we're very serious about it."

AB 880 was opposed by Republicans and supported by Democrats in passing the Assembly Health and Appropriations committees.

Nestande, known as a relatively moderate Republican, said that he feels that labor leaders should push to amend the federal health-care law if a loophole exists - not punish California employers.

"This is the wrong way to fix it," he said. "They should go back and revisit the federal health-care law, not simply tax businesses."

PHOTO CREDIT: Freshman Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D- Los Angeles, is the author of union-sponsored Assembly Bill 880. Hector Amezcua//The Sacramento Bee



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