Sen. Lamar Alexander — a Tennessee Republican — is now the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

The committee’s new Republican leaders today held their first health-related hearing: a look at how regulators applying the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) employer mandate ought to define “full-time” workers.

H.R. 30, a bill that would set the minimum number of hours in a full-time workweek to 40 hours, from 30 hours, has attracted support from some Democrats in the Senate as well as Republicans.

See also: Two freshman House Democrats buck the party.

The HELP hearing was collegial but dominated for the first time in years by witnesses chosen by the Republicans.

Witnesses and senators spent much of their time giving their general views on the employer mandate.

Alexander started the hearing by describing employers that have said they are cutting some workers’ hours to avoid having to worrry about providing minimum essential coverage (MEC) for those employers.

Sen. Sheldon White House, D-R.I., said the Republicans themselves are to blame for any complications that occur because of the full-time worker definition. “I’m all for getting rid of this problem by going to a universal health care system,” Whitehouse said.

But witnesses also shared some data on how the PPACA employer mandate is working in the real world.

Andrew Puzder, chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants, Carpinteria, Calif., said his company — the owner and operator of about 800 Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants in the United States and the franchisor of another 2,120 U.S. restaurants — already faces PPACA employer mandate requirements at its restaurant. Each restaurant has a general manager and an average of about 25 other workers.

His company has chosen to cover all of the 6,900 employees who are eligible for coverage under PPACA, rather than paying the penalty to be imposed on employers that do not provide coverage.

The company found that 1,447 already had PPACA-compliant coverage under company plans in effect earlier, and that 5,453 were not already in company plans.

When the company offered coverage to the 5,453 eligible employees, only 420 — 2 percent — chose to enroll. 

Some of the 5,033 employees who declined the coverage may get the coverage from relatives’ plans, but 53 percent were single and over age 26, and it looks as if at least 2,640 may be on track to have to pay the penalty to be imposed on individuals who fail to have coverage, Puzder said.

He said he thinks most of those workers would rather have an easier time working more hours than getting access to PPACA-compliant major medical coverage.

“They would prefer to have the hours to having the coverage,” Puzder said. “People aren’t signing up, at least at my company.”