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Heather Shoppa

Heather Shoppa substitute teaches in several districts in Eastern Iowa.

MUSCATINE — If she didn't have a substitute teaching job already scheduled for the day, Heather Whitlock Shoppa can expect a call at 4 a.m. in the morning. 

"We are calling on behalf of McKay-Tine Schools," a robotic voice will say. Shoppa understands what it means: the calling machine for some reason struggles to pronounce "Muscatine."

She will punch in her security code and the prompt will ask her if she is interested in a substitute job today. If she answers yes, the voice will offer an assignment:

"An all-day assignment for third grade at Jefferson Elementary," it might ask her. 

But Shoppa and all the other teacher substitutes in the Muscatine District got an email from human resources Wednesday. In order to comply with the Affordable Care Act, Shoppa and the other substitute teachers would be limited to 129 hours a month. 

Jill Bourquin, the director of Human Resources for the district, made it clear that this is not a new policy. The limit is allows for the system to manage hours with automated process versus a manual one. In an email Bourquin wrote that "(e)mployees with more than 30 hours of service per week or 130 hours of service per month must have access to employer-sponsored health care benefits at companies with 50 or more full-time employees and full-time equivalents." The employer pays a penalty if they do do not offer the employee an opportunity to enroll. 

For the 2016-2017 school year, Muscatine Schools paid 116 substitute teachers. Ideally when there is a vacancy, a substitute is available to hop into the classroom. But when a substitute is not available to fill in, the school has to make do. However for 2016-17 school year, Muscatine Schools filled 94 percentage of teacher absences with a substitute. According to Jill Bourquin, that is a pretty high percentage when compared to the substitute fill rate for other positions. 

The 2017-18 school year will be Shoppa's fourth as a substitute teacher. With those years under her belt, she has learned to schedule to substitute well ahead of time. 

"I know a lot of teachers. I've worked for a lot of different teachers," Shoppa said. "I'm very grateful for that."

Shoppa said she loves the work she does. She loves the variety of the work, and the service it provides for teachers.

"Teachers, they have to sometimes be away from their jobs," Shoppa said. "Whether they are getting pulled out for meetings or maybe they are having to take care of a medical issue for themselves or they have someone that they've lost, and they need some time to grieve. Without substitute teachers, those teachers wouldn't have a way to be out of their classrooms."

When Shoppa was asked about the limit on hours, she was hesitant to  talk. She said she really enjoyed the work she does in Muscatine Schools.

"I love what I do," Shoppa said. "I wouldn't want to cause them an ounce of trouble."

To compensate for those lost work hours, Shoppa will be working in other districts. She has taught in other districts before and is currently in the application process for being a substitute for Davenport Schools. 

"It won't be the same," Shoppa said. "I really like the schools I work in. I've been here long enough now that the teachers know me. And I know a lot of the teachers. I know their routines. Where do you meet the kids in the morning? What kind of curriculum are you going to have for a math class? What kind of things do you do for reading? It is going to just take some time to become more familiar (with other districts). It won't be impossible. Just another challenge." 

And there are other districts that also need substitutes. 

"Think about the number of school districts that are in a 25- to 35-mile an hour radius of Muscatine," Shoppa said. "I could go to West Liberty. I could go to L&M. I could go to Columbus Junction. I could put my name in at a lot of different places.

"And I had done that for a while, but I found so much work in Muscatine, it was nice," Shopp said.

Even with the limit on hours, Shoppa said that it would be hard to move into another line of work.

"It would have to be a really special job that I thought I would be amazing at before I decided to give this up," Shoppa said. "If I need to work in different districts to make sure that I take care of family, I'm happy and fulfilled to continue the job that I have."