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Florida restaurant chain adds Obamacare surcharge to meal bills

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO (Reuters) - Diners at a Florida restaurant chain are being asked to pay a health insurance surcharge on their meal tabs to cover the cost for business owners of the Obama administration's new healthcare program.

Customers at eight Gator's Dockside restaurants dotted around central and north Florida are finding a 1 percent surcharge on their bills listed as "ACA," the letters standing for the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.

Lengthy signs on the front door and a plastic-coated letter delivered to tables with the menu warn diners of the fee. "The costs associated with ACA compliance could ultimately close our doors," the letter reads under the company letterhead.

A $14.56 lunch tab for Asian salad and iced tea ordered by a reporter at a Dockside restaurant in the town of Clermont, a short drive west of Orlando, included a 13-cent ACA surcharge.

Dockside said it wants to continue to offer full-time employment so its employees don't have to work multiple jobs to make a living.

"Therefore, instead of raising prices on our products to generate the additional revenue needed to cover the cost of ACA compliance, Gator's Dockside has implemented a 1 percent surcharge on all food and beverage purchases only," the notice adds.

"People gotta do what they gotta do to obey the law," said local business owner Sean Gumbert, 40, a lunchtime customer at Gator's Dockside in Clermont who opposes Obamacare.

But other diners, including several who didn't like Obamacare, were less sympathetic to the restaurant's dilemma, saying insurance was just another cost of doing business, similar to other business taxes, and had no place on a meal tab.

"It's a game. If you want to play the game, customers can play the game too. Instead of 20 percent tip, he (the waiter) gets 18 percent," said Joe Lee, a retired federal worker.

"We didn't do this for any, any, any, any, any political reasons," said a company official who answered the phone at the company's Orlando headquarters, but asked not to be named.

"It was done in all the greatest intentions. It was done to give everybody full healthcare without knocking their hours down and not charging ridiculous amounts of money to do it," he said.

The Affordable Care Act requires all businesses with more than 50 full-time employees to provide health insurance for their staff, or to make a shared payment on their federal tax return. Originally due to go into effect in January, the requirement has been postponed until the end of the year.

A dozen other independently owned restaurants in the Gator's Dockside franchise are not imposing the surcharge.

"It's clearly political," said Hank Fishkind, an Orlando-based economic consultant, noting that the company could have increased its meal prices to cover the extra healthcare cost without advertising it.

"If they want to display their politics in this way, that's their right. Some customers, depending on their politics, might like it. Others will not," he said.

Fishkind said he was unaware of any other company making a similar move, though some Florida hospitality firms have complained about the requirement under Obamacare to provide health insurance for part-time labor.

"It is a real issue, particularly in a state like Florida, because we have a concentration of restaurants and lodging companies," he said.

(Writing and additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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