If you’re an employer with more than 50 workers, you must comply with the employer mandate to offer health insurance starting Jan. 1, 2015 — unless you’re a medium-sized employer with 50 to 99 employees, in which case the mandate is delayed a year.

To avoid penalties, you must offer coverage to full-time employees; that is, those who work at least 30 hours a week or 130 hours a month — but you can impose a 90-day waiting period before starting coverage. For seasonal workers, you can decide at the beginning of each month who among your workers will be considered full time, or look at the previous 12 months to find who was full time for six months or longer — but don’t get it wrong, because then you could be liable for a penalty.

If you don’t offer it to enough of your full-time workers, or the coverage is deemed inadequate, that’s a penalty, too.

Confused yet?

The employer mandate portion of health reform continues to be one of the most contentious pieces of the law, and its ability to polarize debate is matched only by the dauntingly complicated requirements of how and when and for whom employers of different sizes must provide coverage for their employees.

The complications only get worse in the agricultural industry, where a majority of workers are seasonally employed for months at a time, rather than on an ongoing or permanent basis, making it difficult to define a “full-time employee.”

“The real challenge people in the agricultural industry are facing is that this is a whole new reporting analysis requirement that is not something they’ve historically had to do,” said Alicia Scalzo of Seattle-based Kibble and Prentice, a financial services and brokerage firm.

“It’s putting a lot of resources and understanding into this, on top of the kind of lack of guidance that’s existed, and it’s a sort of burden on these agricultural businesses in figuring this out, on top of everything else they’re asked to do as well,” Scalzo said.

To navigate the new law, farmers and growers look to trade associations, such as the Yakima-based Washington Growers League, for at least a base understanding of the requirements.

“It’s a pretty complex system and it’s really easy to overstate or misstate by making general statements,” said Mike Gempler, executive director.

His organization has offered webinars, in-depth explanations at various meetings, and other materials to agricultural employers, but that’s not enough.

“Once they realize that they are considered an ‘applicable large employer,’ because of the complexity of the law, it has been largely a process of the individual farms and businesses dealing one-on-one with their accountants and working out a plan and a strategy for each business.”

Scalzo said her firm has clients that run “the whole gamut” of opinions regarding the employer mandate.

“You have some organizations or some farmers that are kind of on top of it, and are, in a manner of speaking, well-prepared. ... Then there are folks who are still hoping that it will be repealed,” she said.

Employers might look at strategies like hiring more people but having them work fewer hours, or terminating workers’ employment before they meet the six-month marker for being considered full time, in order to avoid providing coverage.

There are several parts of the law that don’t make sense for agricultural companies with a highly mobile workforce, Gempler said, and his organization is of the opinion that the employer mandate was “the wrong approach.”

Still, “There’s no doubt that some people are going to receive coverage that didn’t have it before, and so improved access to the health care system is a good thing.”

He said that from what he’s seen, businesses are adapting to what’s in front of them and are not holding off in hopes that the law will be repealed or delayed again.

“Their political support on some cases might go to officials and candidates who oppose the ACA and maybe want to, down the road, try to change it, but I think people understand that it’s here now and has to be complied with,” he said.

• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or mrosbach@yakimaherald.com.