The Affordable Care Act (ACA), which launches today, includes a provision for “shared responsibility for employers.” This part of the law creates the possibility of financial penalties on employers such as school districts based on the way they offer—or fail to offer—coverage to their full-time employees and, in some cases, their employees’ dependents. These employer penalty provisions have a unique impact on education support professionals (ESPs) who are paid on an hourly basis.
“Some employers believe they must cut ESPs’ hours in order to avoid a penalty,” says Carolyn York, director of Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy, National Education Association (NEA). “Employers who seek to do that often act out of fear and misunderstanding about the law and regulations.”
Although the statute established January 1, 2014, as the start date for the penalty, the Obama Administration announced in July that the ACA’s provisions on shared responsibility for employers would be postponed to 2015.
“There’s no need to rush to make decisions about ESPs’ hours,” says York. “Employers now have more time to identify and develop practical approaches to the ACA’s employer penalty provisions that are good for students, good for employees, and good for the school district.”
Although there can be no penalties issued until 2015, the Plattsmouth Board of Education in Nebraska convened last summer to consider a plan that would limit non-certified employees to work weeks of 28 hours or less. The proposal was designed to insulate the district against possible penalties for failing to offer health benefits to the employees.
“Our goal for [education support professionals] was to have no loss of wages,” says Marlene Wehrbein, a UniServ director with the Nebraska State Education Association (NSEA). “Most ESPs are covered by their spouses’ [health insurance] policies.”
Across the nation, similar battles were brewing as school districts considered downsizing ESP jobs or cutting ESP employees’ hours in an effort to dodge possible penalties. Health insurance was not the main issue in Plattsmouth as it might have been in other districts, but a reduction of up to nine work hours a week would severely affect the annual income of many ESPs.
Danita Ostransky, a paraeducator for 13 years, told board members that their decision might cause her to take a second job to meet household expenses.
“Some people have told me they were looking for other jobs because they can’t live on incomes from 28 hours a week,” Ostransky said later in a telephone interview.
The reduction in work hours would shortchange students and ESPs. During the meeting, Joyce Foster, a special education paraeducator for 23 years, said most paraeducators have a morning duty, like working the breakfast room or a bus zone. Others have daily lunchroom and recess duty.
“Our day is filled with student contact time,” Foster said. “The students are the ones losing out if our hours are cut.”
The Plattsmouth Education Association (PEA) is a wall-to-wall Association representing 88 percent of district teachers and 19 ESPs, most of them paraeducators. Only teachers are recognized as a bargaining unit. In Plattsmouth, ESPs do not negotiate contracts; they serve as at-will employees.
In the weeks leading up to the decisive summer meeting, Wehrbein had arranged smaller gatherings with the superintendent, district financial advisors, school attorney, board members, and Joel Solomon, an NEA senior policy analyst. Simultaneously, ESPs also met with school trustees, teachers, parents, and community members.
“And they appeared at the meeting together en masse,” Wehrbein says. “There was standing room only.”
More than 65 people showed up at the meeting, and eight ESPs read testimonials. The day before the board meeting, Wehrbein had met with ESPs and urged them to invite allies to the meeting. Others sent emails to board members expressing their concerns.
“Having so many affected employees attend the board meeting helped make our point about the need to not reduce our work hours,” said Foster.
After almost three hours of debate, board members passed a motion allowing school support staff to work up to an average of 29 hours per week (1,189 hours per year) over the course of the entire school year. Pay increases were instituted for paraeducators to make up for lost income due to cuts in their hours. The board passed the plan with the understanding that the district will later increase the hourly pay of all education support staff.
“The end result has been that the paras suffered no loss of take home pay,” Wehrbein says.
In a telephone interview, Kelly Henry, a special education teacher, said teachers cannot do their jobs effectively without paraeducators by their side.
“The kids wouldn’t be as successful if we didn’t have paras,” said Henry, who spoke during the board meeting. “Teachers can’t be everywhere. It’s a huge team effort.”
Many school officials had wrongly considered their choices to be: Start providing health benefits, or cut back the hours of workers so that they would not be categorized as full timers. According to the law, “full time” is defined as an average of 30 hours per week during a month. Part-time workers cannot cause penalties.
Only time will tell how school districts in 2015 react again to the 30-hour limit regarding health insurance eligibility and decide downsizing ESP jobs or cutting their work hours is the only solution.
“There are many options for finding solutions to the 30-hour work week dilemma,” says Wehrbein. “We believed there would be a cost to students, employees and the district if they cut hours, and it wasn’t necessary.”