Pool industry advocates are waging a pitched battle in Washington to remove a controversial addition to the Senate version of the national health care legislation.

The amendment to HR 3590, inserted by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., requires construction companies with at least five employees and payrolls above $250,000 to provide their workers with health coverage or face costly penalties.

The provision applies only to the construction trade; for all other industries, the standard is 50 employees. It has attracted a firestorm of criticism from small business owners and related interests across the country.

“I think it’s crazy,” said Michael Manley, president of Champagne Pools & Spas, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder based in Sanford, Fla. “For them to single out the construction industry makes no sense at all.”

On behalf of the Florida Swimming Pool Association as well as his own company, Manley recently joined with representatives from the National Federation of Independent Business, Associated Builders and Contractors, and Independent Electrical Contractors to denounce the amendment.

The measure comes at a particularly difficult time for the construction industry, which accounted for 53,000 of the 85,000 jobs lost in December 2009, according to the U.S. Labor Department. 

Perhaps most troubling to opponents is how the provision wound up in the bill at all. The Merkley amendment was inserted into the Senate legislation just prior to the chamber’s Christmas Eve vote, which passed 60-39. Critics say it was included at the eleventh hour mainly to appease organized labor.

“It was a backroom deal,” Manley alleged. “They’re trying to buy whatever support they can in order to get this thing passed. It’s almost directly linked to the unions.”

Calls to Merkley’s office requesting comment were not returned. 

In Florida, the coalition that includes FSPA, NFIB, ABC and the IEC recently drafted an open letter to the state’s Congressional delegation warning of the amendment’s impact. In it, they cite the industry’s nearly 23 percent unemployment rate, as well as $200 billion in lost economic activity in 2009.

“This narrowly focused provision is an unprecedented assault on our industry and the men and women who, every day, make the bold decision to strike out on their own by starting a business,” it reads. “Simply put: We are struggling to survive, and this mandate will make things worse.”

Jennifer Hatfield, who heads up government relations for FSPA and the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals, has alerted members and encouraged them to contact their own representatives in Congress.

However, she added, a new twist has emerged with the recent election of Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown to the seat held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

“All signs point to them waiting until [Brown] gets seated before moving the bill through,” Hatfield said. “So there will probably be more developments to come. But there are people all over who have problems with the bill, and if they start railroading this thing through, there will certainly be more urgency on everyone’s part.”