Substitute teachers due $22M
A court rules the state illegally denied, and could be forced to pay, 9,000 in Hawaii
The Department of Education illegally underpaid thousands of Hawaii substitute teachers for years, according to a court ruling yesterday that could force the state to come up with millions of dollars in back pay.
State loses case
A Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday that the state underpaid Hawaii's substitute teachers.
The decision: Unless it is overturned, the state will have to pay an estimated $22 million in back pay to about 9,000 current and former substitute teachers.
When and who: The judge ruled the state violated a 1996 law. A statute of limitations on the lawsuit means teachers can collect back pay only for the period from November 2000 to June 2005.
Earnings: Substitute teachers are paid $119.80 to $140 a day, depending on experience. Their attorney said they should have been paid $151 per day.
What next: The state might appeal the decision, which would delay back payments, possibly for years.
Here is a chronology of events in the court fight over substitute pay:
1996: State Legislature passes law pegging substitute salaries to those of entry-level full-time teachers with college degrees.
January 2002: Maui substitute teacher David Garner learns of the state's noncompliance with the law and brings it to the department's attention.
May 2002: Department adjusts teacher classification system, which effectively moves substitutes to lower pay echelon.
November 2002: Garner files class-action lawsuit seeking back pay to 1996.
October 2004: Judge Karen Ahn rules no back pay can be recovered for period before November 2000.
Yesterday: Ahn rules state illegally underpaid substitutes from November 2000 through June 2005. State says it might appeal.
Circuit Court Judge Karen Ahn ruled that under a 1996 state law the department was required, yet failed, to pay substitute teachers the same daily rate as certain full-time teachers.
Plaintiffs attorney Paul Alston said the back pay amounts to about $22 million and affects more than 9,000 current and former substitutes.
DOE officials were unable to confirm those numbers.
The decision thrilled substitute teachers who have long complained of second-class treatment at the hands of the DOE.
"There is justice. Finally there is some relief for substitute teachers. Finally the truth is out," said David Garner, a Maui substitute teacher who brought the original class-action lawsuit against the state in November 2002.
A spokesman for Attorney General Mark Bennett said the state was reviewing its options and might appeal.
The period of underpayment is from November 2000 to June 2005.
The amount the state owes would have been higher, but a statute of limitations did not allow teachers to seek back pay for the period from 1996 until 2000.
The 1996 law pegged substitute salaries to those of full-time teachers who have completed four years of college but have no other special training, known as Class II teachers.
Salaries for the substitutes, who are not members of the state teachers union, were supposed to rise along with pay increases earned by the unionized Class II teachers through collective bargaining.
But substitutes say the department never honored the rule. Changes made by the department to its classification system in 2002 effectively pegged substitute pay to a lower-salaried class of teacher.
"The department never paid what they were supposed to, and when the teachers recognized they were underpaid, the DOE tinkered with the labels and steps in the salary scale," Alston told Ahn yesterday.
As a result, salaries for substitutes rose only about 11 percent from 1996 to earlier this year, whereas Class II teacher pay has gone up more than 40 percent, Alston said.
The state's attorneys have argued the 1996 law is unclear and that the department is paying substitutes the correct amount.
It is unclear when or if substitute teachers will be able to collect their back pay, Alston said. An appeal would delay any payments. Lawyers and the DOE will have to calculate how much is owed and then go back to court to order the state to make the payments.
The state now has 3,900 substitute teachers. On average, 1,000 substitutes fill in for regular teachers each day, according to department figures.
However, DOE officials said recently that more than 1,000 substitutes declined to work at all in the previous school year, and that finding subs can be a struggle.
Garner said many have quit over the low pay and lack of health benefits, forcing schools to entrust students to custodians or security guards or to have them watch television if a sub cannot be found.
"Ultimately it's the children of Hawaii who lose out in all that," he said.
At the beginning of this year, all substitutes were making $112.53 per day, a year after taking a pay cut from $119.80.
The Legislature raised substitute teacher pay as of July 1 under a three-tier scale, with salaries ranging from $119.80 to $140 per day, based on experience. The DOE also has drawn up plans to provide health coverage for subs who work at least 90 days a year.
However, Alston said substitutes should be paid $151 per day.
He intends to use the court ruling as ammunition to lobby the Legislature to raise the salaries in the next session.
Substitute teacher Genny Chang said substituting draws in many teachers from other careers, who often prove dynamic instructors. She is hopeful the court ruling and new benefits will attract more people.
"Hopefully, by working in the next session and with the DOE's support, subs can continue doing what they love to do," she said.