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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Florida's teacher moral plummets

From the Palm Beach Post

by Jason Schultz

Workplace stress has become a "toxic brew" for Palm Beach County School District employees, according to the major unions representing them in contract negotiations with the district.

The unions cite factors ranging from the lack of raises and more money being taken out of paychecks to fear of losing jobs and feelings that they have too much work and cannot take time off.

In their recent negotiations, unions have asked the district for more tools to lower worker stress as well as for raises and benefits. And district officials say they are looking into doing so in the hopes of controlling the district's rising health insurance costs.

"We're not just talking about sending people to yoga," said Rick Smith, chief negotiator for the Service Employees International Union . "We're trying to nip the causes of stress in the bud."

Smith claimed that stress had become a health problem for his employees and that stress-related insurance claims - gastrointestinal ailments, cardiovascular issues, use of antidepressants - have gone up.

"If the union can't take care of people's health, we're not worth a lot," Smith said.

The district is waiting for data to verify Smith's claim.

Dianne Howard, its risk and benefit management director, said she is working with its insurance carrier on the issue but did not have any data yet because it was difficult to pinpoint which claims are stress-related. As such, Howard said she could not say if stress-related illnesses were driving up health insurance costs.

The school board budgeted an additional $15 million this year to cover rising health care costs of all types, and employees will contribute another $10 million in increased premiums, Howard said. Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke has estimated that health insurance costs will go up another $5 million next year.

Tony Hernandez, executive director of the Classroom Teachers Association Union, said the effect of stressed-out teachers on the district's costs may be more indirect than a simple reading of health insurance claims.

Hernandez said the district must spend more on substitute teachers when full-time teachers need to take more days off to deal with job-related stress.

"This is why you have so many teachers taking sick days. It is something we are very worried about," Hernandez said.

The district has agreed to form a committee with the unions to look for solutions, Howard said. It was part of an agreement the district reached with all the unions this year when they negotiated the premium increases, said Van Ludy, its chief negotiator.

Howard said the district has hired a company to run an employee-assistance program, where workers can seek counseling on problems related to stress.

School Board member Marcia Andrews said district supervisors and managers need more training in how to recognize over-stressed employees and help them find help.

Debra Robinson, the board's vice chairwoman, suggested that schools that have athletic facilities could be made available for employees to exercise as a form of stress relief.

Hernandez said such ideas are welcome but that he would prefer to find the causes of the stress and try to solve those issues.

He pointed to a recent union survey of teachers at every Palm Beach County School. He said teachers at six schools graded their principals poorly, saying the principals created a hostile environment.

"If you want to bring down the cost of health care, you have to get to the root of what is causing the stress and reduce it," Hernandez said.

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