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Last updated: February 17. 2013 8:53AM - 22 Views

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NEW YORK — The owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants is putting more workers on part-time status in a test aimed at limiting costs from President Barack Obama's health care law.


Darden Restaurants Inc. declined to give details but said the test is only in restaurants in four markets across the country. It entails boosting the number of workers on part-time status, meaning they work less than 30 hours a week.


Under the new health care law, companies with 50 or more workers could be hit with fines if they do not provide basic coverage for full-time workers and their dependents. Starting Jan. 1, 2014, those penalties and requirements could significantly boost labor costs for some companies, particularly in low-wage industries such as retail and hospitality, where most jobs don't come with health benefits.


Darden, which operates more than 2,000 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada, employs about 180,000 people. The company says about 75 percent of its employees are currently part-timers.


Even beyond health care costs, Darden has made cutting labor costs a priority in recent years as sales growth has stalled at its flagship chains. In the most recent fiscal quarter, the company's restaurant labor costs were 31 percent of sales. That's down from 33 percent three years ago.


And last year, the company also put workers on a "tip sharing" program, meaning waiters and waitresses share their tips with other employees such as busboys and bartenders. That allows Darden to pay more workers a far lower "tip credit wage" of $2.13, rather than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.


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