Schools crack down on worker's compensation

Internal review shows that some school employees are taking advantage of system

July 16, 2008 at 10:10 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

An internal review by the St. Charles Parish Public Schools’ Insurance Office showed that the district may be getting burned by their generous worker’s compensation policy while also overpaying post-retirement benefits.

Currently, worker’s compensation law requires a seven-day waiting period prior to benefits becoming effective. That seven-day waiting period is not required to be compensated by the employer unless the employee sustains an injury that keeps them out for six weeks or more.

“In other words, if you get hurt at work, you get no benefits during that seven-day period unless you’ve been out for six weeks,” School Risk Manager Angie Peraza said.

The current practice of the school system has been to compensate the employee from the first day out, regardless of the length of time they are off work.

“What I am seeing is that sometimes those days are used to get overtime,” Peraza said. “For example, if you have worker’s comp and you are out for three days during the week, instead of working two days to make up some of your work, you work for three days and actually get paid for six, with one day of overtime.

“I researched it and I can’t find another place that does this.”

Instead, Peraza says that most places require the employee to use seven days of their own personal leave time. If the employee then ends up having an injury that goes on for six weeks, the employer reimburses the employee.

“Twenty years ago, when no one was faking injuries to take a couple of days off, compensating an employee from the first day out was a great idea,” John Ellinghausen, the attorney representing the school system regarding worker’s compensation issues, said. “We are finding that most of those with very questionable injuries come back after three days and then they work and they get overtime.”

Ellinghausen says that if an employee makes $600 a week, they usually end up getting $400 a week with their worker’s compensation coverage. However, that $400 is not taxed.

“So really, it’s a wash,” he said. “They all have their own doctors and they are taking advantage of the system. Word is getting out.”

Peraza says that she became concerned enough about the worker’s compensation claims to start keeping track of them on a spreadsheet. She was startled by what she found.

“The increase in April through May is tremendous,” she said. “We might have 20 something cases in May and you might have three or four in January or five or six in February. The thing is, come April, come May, the numbers just go up.”

Another problem is that if a worker gets injured before the beginning of summer, the school district may have to pay that worker throughout the summer, even if they would usually not work during that period. That’s because the employee can claim that they could have looked for a summer job had they not been injured.

“It’s usually not the teachers,” Ellinghausen said. “It’s the custodians, bus drivers - people who see that they can beat the system.”

The internal review recommended that the worker’s compensation policy be changed to eliminate the automatic payment during the first seven days an employee is off work. Instead, workers that have available sick leave may take their sick leave for work days that fall within the seven-day waiting period. If the employee is out for six weeks or more, and worker’s compensation pays for that first week, the employee’s regular pay and leave time would be adjusted accordingly.

The review also showed that the current practice of the School Board is to supplement the cost of retiree heath and life insurance at a higher level than prescribed by law.
After 10 years of service, law requires that 38 percent of the premiums be paid by the school. Instead, the board pays 50 percent. After 15 years of service, the law requires 56 percent, while the board has decided to pay 75 percent.
After 20 years, the board pays the full amount, while law requires payment of 75 percent of the premiums.

The review found that while the generous retirement benefits provided by the School Board help to attract qualified employees, the benefit is not highly publicized.

Board members were in agreement that they should not pay any less.

View other articles written Jonathan Menard

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