- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Texas schools are scrambling to meet a provision of the federal health care overhaul that compels them to offer health insurance to employees who work at least 30 hours a week, according to a newspaper report published Tuesday.

Substitute teachers, bus drivers and others already are eligible for health coverage but tracking compliance is proving difficult for administrators. Compared with traditional employers, school systems rely on more variable-hour workers and follow a different calendar.

“It’s kind of a nightmare. It’s extremely complex,” said Holly Murphy, senior attorney for the Texas Association of School Boards.

Some systems may cap part-time employees’ hours, while others may create new full-time positions to ease the demand from hourly workers, the Houston Chronicle reports (http://bit.ly/MqFkiD).

For instance, the Fort Bend Independent School District posted job openings for 74 educational assistants, one at each campus, who will essentially be full-time substitutes eligible for benefits. Those positions should help take pressure off the district’s pool of 1,000 part-time substitutes, administrators said, although the district would still face the increased cost of providing benefits to more employees.

Groups of school districts are considering creating co-ops that could share and provide benefits for full-time substitutes, Murphy said.

The most common solution will likely be to limit the variable-hour workers to 29 hours, or three workdays a week, she said. That won’t necessarily mean that substitutes and other employees will lose access to insurance, however. The vast majority are already eligible under the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, she told the Chronicle.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said limiting hours isn’t in the spirit of the law and wouldn’t even be an option in the Houston Independent School District, which struggles with substitute shortages.

“That’s the sort of shoddy behavior we were worried about,” she said.

She applauded the Houston district’s move to begin offering this month a basic $5-a-month health insurance plan to employees earning less than $25,000 a year.

“HISD did very early compliance,” Fallon said. “We have paraprofessionals and clerks and food service and custodial (employees) who can afford insurance for the first time, and we got told instantly it was the Affordable Care Act that did this.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com