Teachers who sub likely to get hours cut
Students may regard the appearance of a substitute teacher in their classroom as a day off, but it means more work — and potentially more cost — for school districts.
As students return to classes, many school districts will be closely monitoring — and limiting — how many hours subs work because of requirements to provide health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.
And in cases in which districts have to offer insurance, some may do the math and find it's cheaper to pay a penalty to the federal government than to pay for the insurance.
Beginning next school year, districts will be required to provide health insurance to part-time employees such as substitute teachers if they work an average of 30 hours in a week or 130 hours in a month.
It matters now, because school districts are able to average out their work hours over a “look back” period of between three months and a year to determine whether they need to offer coverage to subs who could work full-time hours one week but less than that — or not at all — the next.
Most districts are averaging hours over a year, said Jeff Ammerman, director of technical assistance for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. When eligible, districts have to offer coverage for the same span of time as the look-back period.
“Every district is going to have to deal with some portion of it this year,” Ammerman said.
The challenge districts face is tracking people who work multiple jobs in multiple buildings, Ammerman said.
“There's a significant penalty if school districts do not offer coverage to employees who should be offered coverage,” he said.
Kiski Area last school year started manually tracking, and limiting, how many hours substitute teachers work, Business Manager Peggy Gillespie said. The district will now use a computer program to do that work.
Once a day-to-day sub reaches a weekly limit, 27 to 28 hours, they won't be able to substitute, Gillespie said.
The requirement has essentially ended the practice of “building subs,” people who could be relied on to come in every day and work where and as needed, Gillespie said.
“We have to be cognizant of that 30-hour timeframe,” she said. “We can't afford to provide individual health care for 100 substitutes. We couldn't bear those costs.”
Apollo-Ridge will be limiting subs to working three days per week so none rises to full-time status, which Business Manager Jennie Ivory said is “a shame.”
“The biggest impact is to our substitute individuals, and we certainly have some wonderful substitutes,” she said. “It seems a shame. It seems as through they're being penalized. That's not the district's intent, of course. We have to stay within the guidelines of the Affordable Care Act in order not to incur penalties or have to provide benefits.”
Outsourcing substitutes can relieve districts of both the task of tracking hours and offering insurance.
It was a factor in the South Butler School District's move to use a staffing service for subs starting with the coming school year, district spokesman Jason Davidek said.
Using the service gives the district an expanded pool of subs — teachers, custodians and others — to draw from who have the needed clearances to work in schools, he said.
The health care requirement is factoring into the Plum School Board's ongoing discussions over whether to continue using the same staffing service or taking management of subs back in-house.
Although the district's 2014-15 budget called for eliminating use of a staffing service, some board members want to learn more about the impact of the insurance requirement before formally ending the arrangement. The board has not reached a decision.
Kiski: Not much savings
Gillespie said Kiski Area looked at outsourcing, but decided against it after not finding much savings.
“We just weren't ready to move in that direction,” Superintendent John Meighan said.
Because most substitute teachers work in more than one school district, they may not work enough hours at any one district to qualify for health insurance, said Jan Klein, business director in the Mt. Lebanon School District and chair of the Allegheny County Schools Health Care Consortium.
Subs may not need their own policies, as they may be covered by spouses or be recent graduates still covered under their parents' policies.
But for those few who do, Klein said districts may opt to risk paying a penalty rather than pay for health insurance.
It's what she recommended for her district, and what the Mt. Lebanon School Board has decided to do — the district will offer, but not pay for, health insurance for the few subs who work enough hours to qualify for it.
That's because it could cost districts less to pay a penalty to the federal government than pay for health insurance, according to Klein.
At Mt. Lebanon, the cheapest insurance for a single person would cost the district $365 per month. Under the Affordable Care Act – commonly referred to as Obamacare – the penalty is $250.
“It doesn't pay for us to offer health care,” she said. But, “every school district is going to make a different decision.”
Even then, a penalty is not a sure thing. A district would be penalized only if the employee goes to the federal website and gets a subsidy to get coverage.
“That's not a bad choice. The person still has health care and it's less expensive for us. It's an option,” Klein said. “We can pay for it by paying a subsidy through the government or directly out of our pocket. Directly out of our pocket costs more money.
“The federal government has this system, we're going to use it. That's how the law was set up.”
The challenge isn't entirely financial, as districts must consider educational impacts as well, especially if limiting substitute teacher hours results in changing them more frequently in classrooms.
“A familiarity and continuity with substitute teachers who are quality teachers is important for the students,” Allegheny Valley Superintendent Cheryl Griffith said.
Griffith said administrators in her district are still working to figure out how they'll comply.
“There's a balance that has to be considered,” she said. “We have to do the right thing by the students.”
While Kiski Area will be trying to limit substitute teacher hours, there will be times that won't be possible, when a certain teacher with a certain certification is needed for a class, Gillespie said.
“We're always going to do what's best for a classroom. We can't sacrifice the quality of the education,” she said. “There will be some hard choices having to be made.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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