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Solana Beach classified employees receive benefits, consider forming union

Solana Beach School District
Solana Beach School District
Kristina Houck

Christmas came early for some Solana Beach School District classified employees when their health benefits were reinstated last week.

The school board voted unanimously during a special meeting on Dec. 18 to revise its policies and offer medical insurance for classified employees who regularly work at least six hours per day and 30 hours per week. A total of 22 such employees recently lost their benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

“I just can’t thank you enough for being a board that thinks about our teachers and our classified teachers as human beings,” said Carmel Creek School teacher Katie Zimmer.

A total of 46 classified employees were eligible for benefits when the ACA went into effect last year. In a letter two days before Thanksgiving, 22 of those employees learned that they no longer qualified for health care under the ACA and that their current benefits would end at the close of 2015.

A third-party company called Worxtime, an ACA compliance web application, calculated their hours and found that they were not eligible to receive benefits mandated by the ACA guidelines. Although some of the classified employees had worked at least six hours per day, school breaks impacted their totals.

“The 22 employees qualified the year before because when we ran the calculations, we thought that those weeks off shouldn’t be counted. As it turns out, they do count,” Superintendent Terry Decker explained in an interview, noting that the district also calculated the hours. “The Affordable Care Act is built for the corporate world — 52 weeks a year. We have two weeks of winter break. We have a week at Thanksgiving. That time period keeps clocking.”

Several classified employees shared their concerns before the board during the regularly scheduled Dec. 14 meeting.

“Last year, when I received health benefits through the district for the first time, I was thrilled,” said Lori Wolf, who has worked for the district for nearly 24 years She serves as a computer lab instructor at Solana Vista School. “I did not anticipate that my health benefits could be taken away so abruptly. The way this was done was unfair and harsh.”

“We left that Thanksgiving break confused and disheartened,” said Robin Park, an instructional aide in the special education department at Solana Vista School.

“Educating requires teamwork,” he added. “I think it is time classified and certificated employees be treated equally and fairly.”

Certificated staff also showed their support.

“It’s important for us to recognize that our classified staff have made a commitment to their school communities and to the students that they serve to be here for the school year,” said Solana Pacific School teacher Laura Stuber. “Their ability to do this is based partly on their salary and partly on having benefits.

“The perception of our tight-knit community in Solana Beach is that we take care of our own,” she added.

Because the issue was not among the board’s agenda items, board members could not speak on the subject, according to the Brown Act. Within days, however, the district called a special meeting to address the matter on Dec. 18.

In a 4-0 vote, the board revised its policies so that benefits could be offered through the district and not dependent on the ACA. Board member Richard Leib was absent from both meetings.

The only ways the district can provide benefits, Decker explained, is by law, such as the ACA, by contract, such as the contract with the Solana Beach Teachers Association, and by board policy. With the board’s revised policies, the district will now offer medical coverage to classified employees that meet the requirements as well as their dependent children.

“We can’t bend the law for Affordable Care Act,” he said. “We have to implement it as written.”

Decker said this is the same type of coverage they would have received had they qualified for coverage under the ACA. He also confirmed there will be no break in coverage.

“Should that law (the ACA) ever be altered or repealed in the future, the medical benefits for our employees will not be at risk,” Decker said.

He pointed out that the revised policies do not affect the employees who already receive health coverage.

“The revisions do not take anything away from anyone who is now covered, nor do they add anything to anyone who is already covered,” Decker explained. “The only additions are those that affect our six-hour classified employees.”

Because the district had already budgeted for the benefits, the policy revisions will not result in added costs, Decker said. And going forward, the district will no longer track the hours of the six-hour employees. The district will, however, continue to calculate the hours of employees who work fewer than six hours in case they end up meeting the threshold.

Following the vote, board members thanked district staff for their work in resolving the issue, specifically Decker, Carlos Estrella, assistant superintendent of business services, and Sal Gumina, director of human resources.

“It really took a lot of extra effort,” said board member Julie Union.

“They had to do things by board policy,” board member Debra Schade said on behalf of district staff. “We have moved so incredibly swiftly. I really don’t know how it was all turned around that quickly.”

“I’m very grateful that we were able to get this tuned around quickly,” agreed board member Holly Lewry. “I know there was a lot of hard work behind the scenes.”

Board members also thanked the previous meeting’s speakers for bringing the matter to the board.

“I believe that every difficult situation has a silver lining,” board president Vicki King said. “One of the silver linings in this, among many, is that we, as a board, got to see and believe and feel the passion that you all have for your jobs.

“It was difficult on Monday for me to hear that but it really showed me the passion and how fortunate we are as a district to have not just the teaching staff, but the classified staff that do some of the hardest work for our students and our children.”

In an interview, Decker acknowledged the news about the benefits was “heartbreaking” for staff and said that the district had worked ever since to change the situation. With the support of the board, the district was able to provide benefits, he said.

Although benefits were reinstated through board policy revisions, the issue sparked concerns among some classified staff.

Spearheaded by Park, some classified staff members have since expressed interest in forming a labor union called the Solana Beach Association of Support Professionals or SBASP.

“I, personally, am very thankful for it (the revised policies) because it directly affects me,” said Park, who has worked for the district for four years. He served as a physical education instructor for the first three years. “I am a six-hour employee and I now am going to be receiving benefits.”

However, Park pointed out that because it is a policy change, the policy could be changed again in the future. For this, and other reasons, classified staff has since obtained the number of signatures necessary to petition the state’s Public Employment Relations Board to mandate the district to hold an anonymous mail-out ballot vote for the establishment of a union.

“This sparked the fire,” Park said. “We don’t have contracts because we are unrepresented.”

Park said the district’s certificated employees have not only supported the efforts of the classified employees but also initially contacted the California Teachers Association for assistance.

“If anybody knows how hard we work, it’s them,” Park said.

“There are no bad guys,” he added. “The bigger picture is that we want to build an alliance. It’s not like we are asking for more; we’re just asking for what’s mandated by the government. In order for us to do our job, we need this.”