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February 09, 2014 3:17 PM The ACA makes it possible for workers to quit jobs they hate. This is awesome.

By Kathleen Geier

There’s a very interesting story in today’s Washington Post about workers who are now able to quit their jobs because of Obamacare. For example, here’s the story of a woman named Polly Lower:

It happened in September, when her boss abruptly changed her job description. She went from doing payroll, which she liked, to working on her boss’s schedule, which she loathed. At another time, she might have had to grit her teeth and accept the new position because she needed the health benefits.
But with the health-care law soon to take effect, she simply resigned — and hasn’t looked back.
“It was wonderful. It was very freeing,” said Lower, 56, of Bourbon, Ind., who is now babysitting her 5-year-old granddaughter full time. With the help of federal subsidies that kicked in Jan. 1, she is paying less than $500 a month for health coverage for herself and her husband.

To recap: Polly Lower was able to quit a job a job that sucked so she could spend time with her granddaughter. She said this was “freeing” and “wonderful.” And the problem is …?

Of course, this is America, so any policy that improves the lot of workers immediately becomes horribly “controversial.” And right on cue, here we have right-wing economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin for the ritual shrieking and rending of garments:

“What the White House wants you to think is, if a person chooses to make less income, they must be doing something that makes them better off,” said former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, now president of the American Action Forum, a conservative policy group. “What conservatives would have you ask is, is it an appropriate use of someone else’s money to put you in that position to choose?”

The references to “someone else’s money” is odd, because he’s speaking about taxes that subsidize the ACA, and that, of course, is public money that belongs to us all. Also, it’s fascinating that the conservatives, who normally think that “freedom” and “choice” are the grooviest things ever, are less than thrilled about those ideas in this context. I suppose it all depends on exactly whose choice and whose freedom we’re talking about, doesn’t it?

I think what’s really freaking out the conservatives here is the reality that the ACA empowers workers. Clinging to some nightmare of a job just so you can have health care for yourself and your family has now officially become a thing of the past in America. If Polly Lower’s boss wanted her to stick around, then maybe he should have thought about treating her better — and paying her more.

Empowering America’s workers is one of the indirect, and highly salutary, labor market impacts of the ACA. But there’s another one, which the Washington Post article doesn’t mention. The recent CBO report that conservatives are staging a hissy fit about, the one that projects that the ACA will reduce overall employment, predicts that unemployed workers will benefit in the short-term, as they replace workers who quit because of the ACA:

CBO anticipates that the unemployment rate will remain high for the next few years. If changes in incentives lead some workers to reduce the amount of hours they want to work or to leave the labor force altogether, many unemployed workers will be available to take those jobs—so the effect on overall employment of reductions in labor supply will be greatly dampened.

To be clear, the CBO still estimates that employment will be reduced overall. But it anticipates that the reductions could be smaller than suspected if unemployed folks take the jobs of those who are quitting. There are, however, many reasons to be doubtful about the overall CBO projections, including the assumption that we’re returning to a low unemployment economy. If high unemployment remains the norm, then sadly, we are likely to see job seekers lining up around the block, eager to replace workers who quit due to the ACA. That would mean that the ACA’s effect on overall employment could be negligible — but only because a high unemployment rate would make that possible.

Finally, this post clearly calls for some musical accompaniment. Here it is:

UPDATE: The Washington Post piece linked to above has attracted hundreds of comments. They make fascinating reading. Many of them were written by people who finally feel free to pull a Johnny Paycheck and quit their jobs — because now they can get their health care through the ACA.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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