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Stress Test : Cost of Workers Compensation Soars at Compton Schools; Critics Blame Workplace

August 24, 1986|WILLIAM NOTTINGHAM | Times Staff Writer

COMPTON — In 1980, an administrative judge called one teacher's classroom a "blackboard jungle." But since then, even critics of the Compton Unified School District admit that working conditions have generally improved.

But union officials still contend that the school system's 3,161 teachers and employees struggle against the worst job environment in Los Angeles County--witness the district's mounting cost for workers compensation, which has doubled in the six years since. By comparison, last year's total was nine times more per employee than the amount paid by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The Compton district is "paying out an exorbitant amount of money," said Georgia G. Maryland, who spent 13 years as executive director of the Compton Education Assn. until transferring to another school system last fall. She said many teachers and staff members work without decent supplies in buildings that linger in a constant state of disrepair.

During a recent interview, she and other workers compensation experts further charged that a get-tough policy on staff absences enacted in 1985 by Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough has only done more to damage employee morale.

"Employees don't have the confidence, don't feel comfortable in the workplace going to their supervisor or whomever," Maryland said, "because of a fear that that will be used and turned against them. Therefore, they suffer."

Maryland said an employee in any line of work would "expect the employer to be concerned about your welfare . . . This is not what we've found in Compton."

Adds Long Beach lawyer Stephen L. Belgum, who handles claims for many district employees: "The teachers would be OK if (administrators) would provide support. But instead they turn around and treat the teacher like he or she had done something wrong."

Kimbrough disputes the charge that his policies have made matters worse, adding that he is always sensitive to employee problems. But he acknowledged last week that the cost of on-the-job injuries--from ankles twisted in playground potholes to psychological stress caused by physical assaults--continues to be "a major problem."

Called Statewide Problem

"There are sizable amounts of money that are going in places other than the classroom," Kimbrough said. "It's a problem in every school district and a problem in every public agency in the state."

Since the 1980-81 academic year, the school district's workers compensation expense has risen from $1.7 million to $3.06 million. And the year before last, a single award of more than $1 million--for a loading dock worker injured in a fall--pushed the annual amount to a record $4.3 million. Last year, the 55,702-employee Los Angeles school system incurred $5.8 million in workers compensation costs.

John A. Benham, controller of the Compton district, said nearly three-quarters of the money goes to reimburse employee medical bills, but about 24% covers the cost of hiring lawyers and experts to contest claims that administrators believe are unwarranted.

Because the district is to a large extent self-insured, meaning that it doesn't turn to a private insurance carrier unless faced with an award in excess of $125,000, most of the workers compensation expenses tap the same pool of money used to cover instructional supplies and building repairs that are needed to ease many of the employees' concerns.

Claims Increased 50%

Over that same period, from 1980 to the end of instruction last June, the number of claims filed has increased nearly 50%. They ranged from a low of 281 in 1981-82--the year before Kimbrough became chief executive--to 461 in 1984-85. Last year the figure dipped slightly to 457.

Claims filed in recent months include one from an employee who sought medical treatment for stress when her supervisor allegedly pressured her into practicing a style of Buddhism. Seeking lifetime medical care, Trustee Bernice Woods also filed a claim accusing Kimbrough of adding stress to her life.

Without citing any particular claim, Kimbrough said he believes that some employees have filed frivolous cases alleging mental stress.

"All one really has to prove is that they believe they are suffering from stress," the administrator said. "It's very difficult to disprove that."

He said district officials have also found that some employees have filed claims for injuries they received off the job. And in some cases, employees try to get more benefits than they legitimately may deserve.

Memo to Employees

In January, 1985, Kimbrough sent a memo to every district employee announcing that officials would be "evaluating in a much stricter manner" the use of sick leave and workers compensation benefits. No longer could an employee necessarily take time off for illness "by simply providing their own personal doctor's verification." The opinion of an "independent" doctor would be necessary "where a lengthy leave is being taken or the employee has a history of making such claims."

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