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The Journal Gazette

Feeling the pain from health law

Schools cut part-time workers’ hours to meet budget

Part-time school employees are feeling some unintended consequences that come with the new federal health care law.

Although some local districts have already begun the process of cutting back hours for part-time employees to avoid paying tens of thousands of dollars in health insurance under the new law, others have said they will wait until next year to decide how to cut costs.

Providing insurance for part-time workers could cost $5,000 to more than $6,000 per person, depending on the district – a cost they can’t afford, officials said.

But cutting part-time employees’ hours – the alternative that most districts are seeking – has its own challenges. Classroom assistants have fewer hours to spend with students. Teachers spread themselves thinner to meet students’ needs. And employees adjust to less pay as their hours are cut.

“It’s just one thing after another,” one local classroom assistant said. “It all affects putting food on my table. It’s taking over $170 a month away from us, and that’s what helps pay the bills.”

The employee requested to not be named because she works at a local school district.

A second part-time classroom assistant, who also requested her name not be given, said she is often forced to leave students in the middle of a project because her time in the classroom has been cut.

“We get started on a problem or a project, and sometimes our time is up when we’ve just started,” she said. “I feel so bad because we know those students need that one-on-one help.”

The employee said she will occasionally stay a little longer just to make sure her students are on the right track.

“At times I do stay over, but I don’t get paid for it. But… I believe no child should be left in a middle of a lesson when I know they are finally understanding how to do the work.”

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – also called Obamacare – companies that employ 50 or more full-time workers will have to offer health insurance to all full-time employees, defined as workers who average 30 or more hours per week each month.

That requirement was set to go into effect Jan. 1, but in July, the U.S. Treasury Department announced the insurance mandate would be postponed until Jan. 1, 2015.

Fort Wayne Community Schools officials defended their decision to make the cuts to employees’ hours at the end of last school year, explaining that the new requirements were only part of the reason for the cuts.

“If we had full funding from the state, if we had the money to do it, we would gladly give people insurance,” FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.

“Our intent has never been to say that Obamacare is terrible or these employees don’t deserve good insurance. They do. But we don’t have a revenue source that can provide that.”

All districts have said they’ll do what they can to keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible.

“We certainly don’t want our employees’ time with students to be diminished,” said Phyllis Davis, Southwest Allen County Schools human resources director. “You never know which employee might have that positive effect on a student… from the cafeteria to a classroom assistant.”

East Allen County Schools is still determining how to manage the additional costs or make the necessary cuts, while Northwest Allen County Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools are using attrition to address the issue.

“As people leave those part-time positions that would soon be eligible for benefits, we’re restructuring those positions to be about 5.5 hours a day, an hour or a half hour less than they are now,” Davis said.

‘We couldn’t afford’

Like others across the state, local districts are struggling to manage after statewide cuts to education funding, and paying the added cost of health care for all full-time employees won’t be possible.

“For us, this was totally a budgetary issue. We were already going to have to make cuts to the budget. But this, the insurance costs, would have caused an additional expense that we couldn’t afford,” said Kathy Friend, chief financial officer for FWCS. “We didn’t take health insurance away from anybody, but we weren’t in a position to provide it, either.”

The reduction in work hours primarily affected three classified employee categories: secretaries, cafeteria workers and classroom assistants, Friend said.

In addition to other employee groups, the reductions affected 34 elementary-level media clerks, 28 nutrition services employees, and 576 classroom and school assistants, she said.

FWCS officials said offering health insurance to all part-time employees above the 30-hour threshold would have cost $10 million annually, a price the district cannot afford.

And although FWCS board members recently approved a 2 percent salary increase for classified employees and $1 million in stipends for nonteaching employees, those raises won’t be enough to cover the cost of lost hours, Stockman said.

Tom Harris, the district’s human resources director, said the majority of the positions that had hours reduced are seasonal and have a high turnover rate, so it’s difficult to say how many employees left their part-time jobs because of the changes to their hours.

“It was a tough decision for the district, but it was something we had to do. The employees who were affected were obviously upset about it,” Harris said.

‘I love my job’

However, there are some staffing expenses that cannot be cut, school officials said.

For example, employees tasked with keeping student meals on track can’t work fewer hours, and classroom aides who work with the district’s special-education classes are absolutely essential, Friend said.

Phyllis Davis said SACS has also taken special precautions to avoid cutting hours of people who work with students who have special needs.

“For some of our special-needs students, having the continuity of making sure the aide was the same person is crucial,” Davis said. “For other groups of students, that continuity is not such of a necessary requirement.”

Davis estimated that the district would have to pay $5,000 per employee. By shifting 40 employees to work fewer hours, the district will avoid paying $200,000 next year.

But with those cuts to individuals’ hours, the district has also been able to hire five or six new employees, Davis said. For example, in areas where there were five aides working seven hours each, reducing their hours to 5.5 hours each made it possible to add another person at the school to cover the loss in hours, she explained.

“So, in several cases, we added another person instead of potentially spending the money on benefits,” Davis said.

Like SACS, employees at Northwest Allen County Schools haven’t seen cuts to their hours, but the district is reducing hours through attrition.

“A part-time position that might have been 32 hours a week is now being reposted as a 25-hour-per-week position,” NACS Business Manager Bill Mallers said.

Mallers said the district has reduced the hours of 11 positions, with more to come as employees leave their positions.

But those reductions won’t be enough, he added. If the district were to offer insurance to those 11 employees, it would cost more than $56,600 annually.

“The government gave us another year to fully look at the impact, so we’ll continue to study it. Heading toward next school year, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions about our staffing,” Mallers said.

EACS officials also plan to take advantage of the extra time provided by the delays before deciding where to cut hours or how to pay for the additional costs.

“We have not done anything full-fledged at this point in time,” said Kirby Stahly, the district’s business manager.

According to Amanda Rickett, EACS human resources director, the district pays about $6,000 per individual employee.

The district has 263 part-time employees, and 130 of those employees are already eligible for benefits, though many do not take benefits, she said.

Less than half of the remaining 133 part-time employees would be eligible for insurance after the law goes into effect.

“We’ll make sure we’re meeting all of the requirements,” Stahly said.

It’s challenging, but districts said they are doing what they can to help teachers, students and families cope with the changes.

With the holidays just days away, the first classroom assistant said she’s yet to go shopping for Christmas gifts for her children and grandchildren as she works with a smaller budget.

“I love my job because I love having the same hours as kids and time off in the summer and on breaks,” she said. “If it weren’t for that and the people I work with, I would probably leave.”