NEW YORK -- The owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster says it won't bump any full-time workers down to part-time status, after its tests aimed at limiting health care costs resulted in a publicity backlash that took a bite out of sales.
At the same time, Darden Restaurants isn't ruling out relying more heavily on part-timers over the long haul.
The company, based in Orlando, Fla., is set to announce Thursday that none of its current full-time employees will have their status changed as a result of the new regulations. The move will come just two days after the company lowered its profit outlook for the year, citing failed promotions and negative publicity from its tests that used more part-time employees. The tests were aimed at keeping down costs tied to new health care regulations, which will require large companies to provide insurance to full-time workers starting in 2014.
After Darden's tests were reported in October, the company received a flood of feedback from customers through its website, on Facebook and in restaurants, said Bob McAdam, who heads government affairs and community relations for Darden. Additionally, he said that internal surveys showed both employee and customer satisfaction declined at restaurants where the tests were in place.
"What that taught us is that our restaurants perform better when we have full-time hourly employees involved," he said.
McAdam declined to give specifics on the internal surveys but said the decline was "enough to make a decision." Beyond the first year of the regulation, however, the company said it still needs to see how costs and other factors play out to determine what its workforce will look like in following years.
For now, about 75 percent of the company's 185,000 employees are part-timers. The exact mix in the future "will depend on how the business goes," McAdam said.
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, 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 is far from alone in considering changes to its workforce as a result. CKE Restaurants, which owns Carl's Jr. and Hardee's fast-food chains, has said it plans to employ more part-time workers. McDonald's, the world's biggest hamburger chain, has also noted that it was reviewing factors that impact its health care costs, including its number of full-time employees.
And earlier this month, Papa John's CEO John Schnatter wrote a column in the Louisville Courier-Journal after making comments that suggested business owners could find "loopholes" to get around the requirements, such as cutting hours. Following negative feedback, Schnatter's column clarified that it was a move he believed franchise owners and other small businesses would make, rather than the Papa John's as a company.