|Friday, July 02, 2004
Coaches losing jobs to fair-labor law
|School administrators throughout Timesland have had to re-evaluate how they hire and pay coaches.
By Aaron McFarling
Bryan Patteson hasn't lost a district game in two years as head coach of the Narrows girls' basketball team. He's been to the regional tournament twice and has compiled a 42-8 record. His team came within three points of a state berth last season.
And now he can't coach.
The issue is money. Patteson is happy with what he's being paid, but federal law says he has to be paid more. Giles County can't afford to pay it, so he's out.
If the situation sounds complex, that's because it is.
"It's a big mess," Patteson said.
Patteson is a casualty of the Fair Labor Standards Act, federal legislation that has forced school administrators throughout Timesland to re-evaluate how they hire and pay coaches. Small counties such as Giles seem to be hit the hardest - five other coaches in Giles County have been let go after the possibility of an FLSA lawsuit forced the school system to act.
Patteson has offered to volunteer some hours next season, but the law also forbids that.
Traditionally, high school coaches have been paid a flat supplement for coaching. For many, that has changed.
The FLSA requires that all hourly employees who work more than 40 hours a week receive overtime pay. The law does not affect full-time teachers because they are considered exempt employees who are paid a set salary no matter how many hours they work.
The problem is, not all coaches are teachers.
Patteson worked 35 hours per week at Narrows last year as a teaching assistant and was paid a coaching supplement.
Under FLSA guidelines, Patteson can spend five hours a week coaching Narrows' girls' team at his regular rate, but he must be paid time and a half for any extra hours. Steve Brady, assistant principal and athletic director at Narrows, said the administration looked for ways to keep Patteson coaching but couldn't come up with any affordable solutions.
"It's been hectic," Brady said. "I mean, my goodness. You're losing a young man that's been undefeated in the district. You have a young man that's been in the regionals for the last two years, who's been a part of this system long before I ever got here. And because of this [law], we have to tell Bryan that we no longer need him."
If the coaches are content with what they're being paid, why comply?
One word: lawsuits.
Hundreds of FLSA lawsuits have been filed against schools by the School Litigation Group, a firm based in Mississippi. Last summer, superintendents in Virginia began to take notice.
Robert McCracken, superintendent of Giles County schools, said he had always assumed that his district was in compliance. Just to be sure, Giles had an FLSA audit done on its hourly employees in March.
The results showed that some employees were not being paid due overtime, and they have since been compensated. The audit also revealed that several coaches, including Patteson, were being treated as exempt employees when they shouldn't have been.
Patteson got a check for back pay, a pink slip and an apology.
At Giles High School, athletic director Jared Rader is trying to find replacements for Maurice Milton and Steve Wilson, hourly employees who coached five sports combined.
"Do I want them to go? No," Rader said. "Would it be much easier for me if we continued to do exactly what we're doing? You better believe it. And it's tough on them because they want to do it. It's tough for me to tell somebody, 'I know you want to, and I know you'll do it for nothing, but I can't let you do it.'"
Schools, particularly those with small faculties, cannot find candidates from within the building to fill coaching positions. Often, faculty members are former coaches who have no desire to return to athletics.
Schools can hire from outside the building, but they must pay those coaches an hourly rate - which often translates to much more money than veteran teacher-coaches make.
"I don't know what it's going to look like or be like," Rader said. "But come fall, we'll have somebody out there that's responsible and can coach the kids and somebody we're comfortable with. Otherwise, I'll be out there doing it myself."
Giles County modeled its compliance procedure after that of Wythe County, which had a head start on its evaluation. Wythe began interviewing all nonexempt employees - every cafeteria worker, bus driver, custodian, maintenance worker and coach who was not a teacher - about Christmastime.
"We absolutely feel like we got on top of it early," said Joe Bean, assistant superintendent for instruction in Wythe County.
Bean said the interviews revealed far more issues with noncoaches than with coaches. Still, four coaches in Wythe County - none of whom is a varsity head coach - were cut loose. Four others will coach under special contracts, restricting the number of hours they can work.
That system, designed primarily for assistant coaches or head coaches of eighth-grade sports, will probably force some coaches to leave practices early.
"If they can do it, we'll let them coach," Bean said. "If it can't be done, then we won't."
In Roanoke County, administrators switched nonexempt coaches to an hourly rate and allocated more money for them.
Randy Meck, athletic director at Cave Spring High School, oversees about 50 coaches who were all retained.
"And the bottom line is, most of our coaches got a pretty decent raise out of it," he said. "I can imagine some of these smaller school systems, it's really going to hurt them. A good coach is hard to find, and if you can't find one within your teaching ranks and you have to hire within your teaching ranks, that's going to hurt athletics eventually.
"I don't think that this was ever the intent of the law, but that's the way it's being interpreted."
That interpretation is all that matters to Patteson. He said he might try to earn his teaching license so he can return to the sidelines, but with his job, two children and a 30-acre farm to worry about, he's not sure if that will happen.
"It's a shame," he said. "But I really don't see any way around it."