Mar 5, 2015

Some special education teachers now getting worker’s compensation

Working with special education students sometimes puts teachers at risk of injury. Despite potential occupational hazards, special education teachers in Wyoming have not received worker’s compensation coverage.

New legislation signed into law Tuesday will change that, but only for a small group of educators.

Beginning July 1, worker’s compensation will be provided for teachers and service providers, such as speech therapists, who work with students requiring educational services beyond a regular classroom. Those teachers and providers will be covered in the extra hazardous category.

Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, who sponsored the bill, said some lawmakers were shocked when they learned that special education teachers haven’t already received worker’s compensation coverage.

“Aids who help have always been covered — just not the teachers, and it makes no sense,” said Northrup, who represents part of Cody.

Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, speaks during the 2015 Legislative Session. Photo by CJ Baker
To highlight the need for worker’s comp coverage, Northrup talked about an area special education teacher who was unable to work after her thumb was badly injured by a student.

“She took all of her personal days and all of her vacation days,” Northrup said. “She came back to work with her thumb still bandaged up, and she was gesturing with her other hand and the same kid reached over, grabbed her thumb and wrenched it and did the exact same thing to her other thumb.”

While insurance covered medical costs, “she had no ability to recover lost wages, lost time — any of that,” Northrup said.

Northrup said a Powell school nurse pointed out another health risk for special education employees is coming into contact with bodily fluids when working with students.

“Aids who help have always been covered — just not the teachers, and it makes no sense,” said Rep. David Northrup.

Cody school board trustee Stefanie Bell has advocated for worker’s compensation coverage for all special education teachers.

School districts in Wyoming can either cover 100 percent of their employees or only those mandated by law, Bell said in an email Wednesday.

“We only have the two choices,” Bell said. “If a district sees a position that may be hazardous, they cannot choose to cover those individuals. Again, they can cover everyone or, as we did, try to change the law.”

Rob McCray, chairman of the Powell school board, said local education leaders believe the legislation will be beneficial for employees who work in special education.

Bell said this statutory change will protect staff, students and school districts.

“These are truly workplace injuries,” Bell said. “This restores equity in the workplace for those covered in that the assistant and the teacher are both equally covered by workman’s compensation insurance.”

In her 15 years as a school board trustee, Bell has seen injuries that affected special education teachers.

“These trusted staff members incur the costs associated with those injuries — the lost time at work, their insurance deductible and out-of-pocket expenses,” Bell said.

“These are truly workplace injuries. This restores equity in the workplace for those covered ...,” said Cody school board member Stefanie Bell.

Northrup would like to see worker’s compensation coverage for all special education teachers, and he proposed a measure to do that during last year’s legislative session.

“It got defeated because it would be $2 million annually to cover them,” Northrup said.

This time, the bill was scaled back to include a smaller, specific group of educators — about 97 full-time employees statewide.

At roughly $200,000, it’s just a fraction of what it would cost to include all special education teachers.

“This law covers special education teachers who ‘provide services to eligible students with behavioral, emotional, cognitive, learning, physical or health disabilities that require educational services to be provided outside of the regular classroom, because the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily in the regular classroom,’” Bell said.

Sen. Charles Scott proposed an amendment that would have expanded the coverage to all special education teachers, but it was defeated on the third reading, Bell said.

Legislators will likely discuss coverage for more special education teachers during the interim and in committees, Northrup said.

“Now that the ice has been broken pretty good, we need to make sure that we can get it put together,” he said.

Northrup’s bill, House Bill 138, was approved unanimously with amendments in the Wyoming House of Representatives. In the Senate, it was approved 22-7. Local senators Hank Coe, R-Cody, and Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, voted in favor of it and served as co-sponsors. Reps. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, Sam Krone, R-Cody, and Dan Larsen, R-Powell, also supported the measure as co-sponsors. Gov. Matt Mead signed the bill Tuesday afternoon.

Northrup called it a good start.

“It’s a start down a road that needed to happen,” Northrup said.


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