Obamacare Impacting how Hudson Valley Schools Deal with Substitute Teachers
HUDSON VALLEY, N.Y. – The advent of the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, is prompting school officials throughout the Hudson Valley to closely monitor how they use substitute teachers.
Under the new law, school districts must provide health care benefits for at least 95 percent of their full-time equivalent employees. A full-time employee is anyone who works 30 hours or more a week or 130 hours per month. If a substitute’s hours go over those marks, it would trigger eligibility for health care benefits and significantly impact the school district budget.
However, if a district neglects to offer those benefits, the fiscal consequentces could be even more dire.
“There are huge penalties if we don’t broadly offer health benefits to 95 percent of full-time employees,” said Christopher Prill, assistant superintendent for business for the Dover Union Free School District in Dutchess County.
The formula for the penalty, Prill said, is $2,000 times the number of employees in a given district minus 30.
“If we have 230 full-time employees, you subtract 30 and get 200. Multiply that by $2,000 and you get a penalty of $400,000,” Prill said.
As a result, to avoid budget-busting penalties, school districts must keep a close watch on substitutes’ hours and whether they become full-time and thus eligible for benefits.
“We purchased a new software program that provides reports on how many hours subs are working,” Prill said. “It’s still in its infancy and we are working out the kinks. It’s a lot of time and effort for our staff. It’s a strain.”
Prill said that ultimately it could be the students who suffer.
“Who is really being punished is the students,” he said. “We might have one sub that is most qualified or fit for a certain subject, but may not be called because they have too many hours on the books. The travesty is we are making a decision not to put the best teacher in front of the class.”
Starr Dinio, superintendent for business for the Mahopac Central School District in Putnam County, said that she commiserates with Brill but that her district probably would use the most appropriate substitute despite the fiscal implications.
“I do feel I know the community enough that they want the best people,” she said. “That solution wouldn’t work here – pushing someone out because they are [exceeding the allowed number of hours]. It’s not a decision that I can make, but I would want the administrators to understand the impact of that decision.
“I think a big part of it will be when we determine the cost of it and put that in perspective with the budget we are looking at, plus the impact it will have on the classroom.”
Dinio said Mahopac is still analyzing the law and how it will affect the district.
“We are not that far along on how we are making determinations on how we will handle employee groups that don’t have health care offered to them, including substitutes,” Dinio said. “We are in the process right now of looking at what the cost will be to the district. It needs to be completely vetted out before a decision can be made.”
Dinio noted that the law and its definitions of full-time employees could also affect existing collective bargaining agreements.
“There are legal aspects to it,” she said. “We can’t change the condition of employee status and hours when it could be a violation of the contract, and we need to understand that completely.”
Dinio said the law doesn’t just affect substitutes, but reaches into most of the bargaining units that have part-time employees who could be affected, such as bus drivers, monitors and clerical workers.
“Anyone potentially working the cusp of full time we will have to keep our eye on, because if the part-time worker becomes full time and we don’t offer them insurance, we could get a penalty,” she said.
One solution for substitute teachers is for neighboring school districts to collaborate on a pool of subs and share them, said Mark Betz, assistant superintendent for business and administrative services for the Bedford Central School District in Westchester County.
“We could share pools of subs and broaden the numbers,” he said.
He noted that all the substitutes in the group would already have been vetted by the school district they currently work for and their fingerprints would be on file.
He also said a district could create different “layers” of substitute teachers.
“We use long-term subs for someone out sick,” he said. “Then there are those for leave replacement, for known absences for a known amount of time. They usually come in as FTEs with benefits. We may want to now look at making long-term subs eligible for benefits as well. I think the union would understand and be willing to represent them.”
Betz said that by doing that, a district wouldn’t have to be as meticulous in keeping track of which sub has crossed the full-time equivalent threshold and become eligible for benefits.
“We do have some systems to help us monitor, though,” he said. “We have the software that can monitor the number of hours that we request a person to work and we are using it this year.”
However, Betz noted that the effect of adding health care benefits on the district’s overall finances is an “extraordinary expense.”
“We have to calculate and discuss cost benefits,” he said. “We don’t do it in a vacuum and say we will do anything at any cost.”
He pointed out that the new law has notification timelines and deadlines and that the Human Resources Department has to capture all the employees’ status as they come through the system.
“We have modified some onboarding procedures and they are now part of our standard operating procedures,” he said.
Betz said Bedford is also comparing its plans and procedures to other districts and has hired consultants who are experts in the Affordable Care Act to help out.
In the end, all school officials said the key is to make sure that all those who qualify for benefits get them so the districts can avoid catastrophic monetary penalties.
“By the time the penalty catches up with you, you might not even know you were in violation, and the district budget could be impacted for years to come,” Dinio said. “It’s a big concern. I know of some districts who made the decision to make everyone eligible for health care to alleviate the problem from the start.”