Health care law may cause TN substitute teachers to lose work hours

(THE TENNESSEAN) With the launch of the Affordable Care Act nationwide, substitute teachers are among those apparently suffering "unintended consequences" of the law meant to extend health benefits to millions of people without any form of insurance.

Beginning Tuesday, the Franklin Special School District began limiting substitute teachers to working four days a week to avoid paying for health care that could strain the small district's budget.

The district's substitute teachers have always been considered contract workers, Director of Schools David Snowden said. But under the Affordable Health Care Act, the district would be required to provide benefits to any part-time worker averaging 30 hours a week.

With more than 100 substitute teachers in the pool, this could easily add $1 million to the $4.5 million the district of about 3,700 students pays to insure its full-time workers, said John McAdams, the district's financial director. There's also the potential for fines and penalties if the district fails to provide coverage for those who exceed the limit.

"We want to keep it as is," Snowden said. "The goal is to limit those people so they won't qualify."

Stewart County Schools Superintendent Phillip Wallace, who is also the secretary for the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, said he has spoken with school officials from nine to 10 mostly rural districts who are frustrated about the changes.

He thinks more rural districts will be affected by the act, mostly because they rely more heavily on state and federal funds rather than on property and sales taxes like urban and suburban districts. For example, people in Stewart County drive to nearby Clarksville to shop. That money goes away from the county, he said, limiting its funding.

"I think it's an unintended consequence of the legislation," Wallace said. In his district, about 200 full-time staff members receive benefits. The district, which pays 80 percent of the premium, will probably have to change its insurance plan so it can offer coverage to everyone, or cap hours below the 30-hour threshold, Wallace said. That latter option, he said, would mean that the brunt of the new law would be borne by workers such as bus drivers and maintenance workers, the very people he believes the Affordable Care Act is supposed to help.

"It looks like they are trying to build an airplane and fly it at the same time," Wallace said.

Laura Lewis, who has been a substitute teacher at Liberty Elementary School in Franklin for the past seven years, doesn't want insurance through the school system. She is covered through her husband's policy. She says she has talked to many other substitute teachers who feel the same, and she would sign a waiver freeing the system from providing her insurance if one were available.

'It's a conundrum'

"All are upset, some more vocally than others," Lewis said. "None of them want the insurance. I know it's not coming from central office. It's a conundrum."

She says the new requirement not only hampers her ability to earn wages, but also is detrimental to the students. They need continuity, especially when a teacher is out for longer than a week, she said.

As it stands now, substitute teachers can work every day of the week. Some fill in for a day, some for a month or more. In addition, some substitutes become favorites.

In the FSSD, as in neighboring Williamson County Schools, teachers have access to an automated system to call for a substitute. Some subs work for only one school. Sometimes teachers call subs directly.

"From my personal experience, when you're in there (the classroom), you bond (with the students)," Lewis said. "This is not what they want. For the children's sake, not having three or four different faces thrown at them."

While FSSD is making plans to modify the workweek for its substitute teachers, Williamson County Schools officials are not ready to spell out how they will tackle capping the more than 600 active substitute teachers. Because of a federal yearlong extension of the employer mandate, they are taking time to develop their plan, a district spokeswoman said.

Williamson County Human Resources Director Mike Weber already has taken a closer look at part-time workers who don't serve in the school system such as employees who work in the Williamson County Parks and Recreation Department or at the county landfill.

About a year ago, he audited the schedules of all part-time workers. With 1,446 workers, about 500 of them part time, he found that schedules tended to naturally work out under the 30-hour threshold. Still, he urged all department heads to be mindful of hours. "We have no way to pay for health coverage," he said.

Metro doesn't have to modify schedules

Metro Nashville Public Schools' analysis of substitute workers looks very different. With more than 82,000 students and counting, Metro schools have about 10,000 employees among certified teachers, administrators and support staff. They draw from a pool of more than 1,600 substitutes.

The district analyzed the number of subs working more than 30 hours a week and calculated to see if it was providing the minimum of 95 percent coverage to all who would be eligible under the Affordable Care Act. Because it does, the district meets the law's "safe harbor" standards and does not have to modify or limit substitutes' schedule, a Metro spokeswoman said.


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