Most of the focus lately about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been on the botched federal government rollout of the individual health exchanges, but the clock is ticking on the law’s next major provision: the employer mandate.

For the first time, employers with 50 or more full-time employees, or their full-time equivalents, will be required to offer health insurance coverage or pay a tax penalty.

Employer-sponsored insurance now covers an estimated 149 million Americans, according to a survey last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation. But the complexity and confusion over the rules for the mandate caused so much turmoil, particularly among employers in low-wage industries like restaurants and retail, that last July the Obama Administration agreed to postpone the employer mandate from this year to 2015.

Attorneys for some of Cincinnati’s largest law firms say the delay bought more time for employers to understand the rules and figure out what they’ll do next year.

But they say it doesn’t mean employers could just forget about the law for a year.

For one thing, the ACA defines some things differently from what many employers are used to. For example, just who is a full-time employee?

Bill Freedman, partner at the Dinsmore & Shohl firm, says many employers consider full-time to be someone who works 35 or more hours a week, but the ACA defines full-time as 30 or more hours a week.

That’s something of a curveball for a lot of employers, he says.

Under the law, employers also must calculate the number of hours part-time, non-seasonal employees work and convert them to full-time equivalents and add those to their roster of employees working 30 or more hours a week to determine if they exceed the 50 full-time employee rule that triggers the insurance mandate.

“The very first thing all employers, large and small, need to be doing this year, in advance of 2015, is to track the hours of all their employees,” says Helana Darrow, an employee benefits lawyer with Frost Brown Todd.

Lisa Wintersheimer Michel, leader of the employee benefits group at Keating, Muething & Klekamp, says, “I think employers are monitoring hours more closely and making sure employees are not working more than 30 hours if they’re scheduled to work less than that so they don’t slip into the full-time category.”

“The biggest thing in 2014 is data collection and determining how you’re going to collect that data,” says Darrow. “For small employers, that can be difficult because they may not have sophisticated software. So they’ll have to come up with an understanding of what they need to do to demonstrate to the government that they’re not subject to the mandate.”

Gregory Parker Rogers, partner at the Taft Stettinius & Hollister law firm, says it is important for employers to look at the actual number of hours worked by employees routinely scheduled for less than 30 hours.

“What we’ve discovered with a number of employers is that some employees scheduled to work fewer than 30 hours a week, routinely work more than 30 hours,” he says, which could result in being counted as full-time employees.

For example, he says, a nurse scheduled to work three eight-hour shifts a week, might actually work four shifts, covering vacations and other absences.

Another wrinkle in the law: while part-time employees are included in the calculation for meeting the 50 full-time employee rule, that doesn’t mean the employer has to offer part-time employees insurance coverage.

“One of the biggest misconceptions I’ve run into is that employers who have 50 or more full-time employees believe they must offer coverage to their part-time employees,” says Darrow. “To escape the penalty, you only have to offer insurance coverage to employees who work 30 or more hours a week.”

There’s been lots of media speculation that some employers who fall under the 50 full-time employee rule may find the ACA’s requirements too onerous and simply opt not to offer coverage and pay the government tax penalty.

“Employers who say they plan to wash their hands of the law need to be very careful,” says Darrow. “What they think may be a cost savings may not be.”

For example, what the employer pays to an insurance premium is a deductible expense, but the tax penalties aren’t. Attorneys say there are a number of reasons beyond the ACA to offer insurance coverage to employees.

“Preparing now and understanding your situation now is critical,” says Jolie Havens, partner in the Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease law firm who practices out of its Columbus and Cincinnati offices.

“The first thing you have to do is understand what is your size relative to ACA calculations,” she says. “You could have lots of part-timers and far fewer full-time employees and still be within the mandate. That’s important.”

Another place where employers could trigger penalties under the ACA is how they count contract employees or temporary workers leased through employment agencies.

“I tell clients to take a hard look at what I called leased employees—employees they’re using from an employment organization or independent contractors,” says Patricia Shlonsky at Ulmer & Berne Associates. “Make sure you’re not misclassifying them because you could get hit with a much larger tax penalty.”

Michel at the Keating firm says the government basically uses a common law test on who is an employee versus a contractor.

“Basically comes down to who do you have control over as an employee. Who do you direct and control?” she says.

Rogers says entrepreneurs who own multiple businesses could also get snagged by the ACA’s requirements.

“People with multiple small businesses need to understand that even though each … business has fewer than 50 full-time employees, they may be treated as one business under the government’s common ownership rules and subject to providing health insurance,” he says. “I’ve come across a number of entrepreneurs who weren’t aware of that.”

On the other hand, Havens says a couple clients with businesses employing a total of more than 50 full-time employees have asked if it’s possible to breakup the businesses into smaller ones to avoid the 50-employee threshold.

“As a rule, you can’t take a 75-employee company and break it into five 15-employee businesses,” she says.

One positive of the ACA, says KMK’s Michel, is that it’s forced employers to take a hard look at who comprises their workforce and who they want to provide coverage to.

“It has really brought that issue back into focus as far as understanding who your employees are,” she says.

Small- and medium-sized employers need to seek out professional expertise when developing their compliance strategy, Havens says.

“One of the things I preach is that these are really expensive decisions being made based on what you provide employees and how you comply,” she says.

The changes employers face under the ACA are unprecedented, and Havens says most employers are preparing.

“I think some employers are hoping it will just go away,” she says. “We will see modifications and changes as we move forward but it won’t disappear completely.”