This article was originally published at Union Advocate.

For decades, hourly school employees in Minnesota have been fighting to change a state law that restricts their access to unemployment insurance benefits, but to no avail.

Now, school bus drivers, paraprofessionals, teaching assistants and support staff across the state are being left behind as unemployment benefits, bolstered by $600 per week through the federal CARES Act, keep many Americans from slipping into poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is insulting we aren’t treated the same as other workers when it comes to unemployment,” Sieara Washington, an education support professional in the Osseo school district, said. “It’s really telling us how they feel about ESPs. I guess we aren’t valuable enough.”

Washington spoke out during a virtual press conference hosted today by four Minnesota unions that represent hourly school employees: Local 284 of the Service Employees International UnionEducation MinnesotaAFSCME Council 5 and Teamsters Local 320.

Union members called on state lawmakers, who began a special legislative session Monday, to take emergency action providing relief for hourly school employees, who are simultaneously dealing with the uncertainty of what their jobs will look like – assuming they exist at all – in the fall semester.

Kelly Gibbons, president of SEIU Local 284, said hourly school employees want both “short term solutions and long-term structural change.”

While construction workers, landscapers, resort workers and other seasonal employees are eligible for unemployment, school employees are not, according to the state’s unemployment statute, provided they have a “reasonable assurance” of returning to work in the fall.

“I think it’s discriminatory,” Gibbons said, noting that hourly positions in school districts are “more female-dominated” than other seasonal jobs like construction. “We’re being excluded from the law, so I think it’s not equitable. I don’t think it’s fair.”

Meanwhile, union stewards on the press call described the mounting financial pressures facing hourly workers, some of whom have been out of work since March.

Local 320 steward Ronnie Sprigler, a teaching assistant in the St. Paul Public Schools, said the sudden loss of income has been “catastrophic” for many of her fellow Teamsters, particularly single parents. Sprigler, herself a widow who cares for a disabled son, has incurred “serious debt and quality-of-life issues” as a result of the pandemic.

“But I also know that I am far from alone,” Sprigler said, noting that calls have been streaming in from distressed co-workers. “There’s a level of mental and emotional damage happening to people I hear from every week.”

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan bus driver Teresa Jakubowski, a steward with Local 284, said that while she’s able to weather the storm by taking on debt, others without access to credit have faced heartbreaking decisions. One member of her bargaining unit recently sold her mother’s engagement ring for cash, Jakubowski said, and another couldn’t afford to replace her broken-down car.

“Food and rent are the biggest worries,” Jakubowski said. “We are frustrated, and we are fearful.”

AFSCME steward Rochelle Stoffel, a middle-school office clerk in St. Paul, said she gets “calls and emails constantly” from members in a panic about their unemployment status.

“They thought because programming was cancelled and they lost their position, they would receive unemployment, only to find out they’re in a pending status, with no help or estimation from the unemployment office when or if they will see a benefit at all,” Stoffel said. “It’s a terrible feeling.”

As painful as the last three months have been for hourly school employees and their families, union members on the press call said they were hopeful the crisis would finally lead to action, which workers like Gibbons have been pressing lawmakers to take for decades.

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this law applies to jobs that are traditionally done by women and people of color,” Gibbons said. “But this work is way too important to be treated this way. We need action from our state leaders.”

3 thoughts on “Excluded from unemployment benefits, hourly school workers speak out: ‘It is insulting’

  1. Has any thing been resolved? I have a pending statues since first week of June.
    Is there anything that can be done?

  2. I don’t know where to turn for ANSWERS AND HELP! Praying MN school bus drivers can somehow rally together and get a meeting with someone who can get us some rights and answers! WE LOST OUR JOBS DUE TO COVID-19 are are getting LOST IN THE SHUFFLE!
    I am a 56 years young furloughed school bus driver/safety manager from Chaska MN, as of March 18! The $600.00 extra dollars I was so grateful to get, was all that was keeping my rent paid, food on the table and the electric on. I am now living in panic, anxiety and fear, not sleeping well and just sick feeling….I am calling creditors asking that any bills we have that are willing to take a minimal payment will do so. This, I find HUMILIATING! I’ve been a great, responsible, and productive member of my community for 50 years and love my job working with kids and their families, never had money issues my whole life, as I worked hard and did the right thing always. NOW, since Corona virus and getting furloughed ( I have never been unemployed in my entire life!) We have went without, cancelled any memberships, cable etc, anything we could cancel we did it…We’ve updated our resumes started applying for jobs and saved every dime of unemployment, ate a lot of Ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches, figured we could “make it” until school started at end of August……
    But WAIT, here we are in AUGUST NOW, getting about $230.00 a week is what we will get, (without the $600.00) until that runs out….with care act ending and schools not opening, so how come no one is mentioning BUS DRIVERS???? Where can you live on that wage? We will be in foreclosure or sell if we don’t figure something out quick. We even sold our second car! I AM FURIOUS THIS IS HAPPENING TO US! It makes me feel, hopeless, depressed, so worthless, and unappreciated! Now with many schools going to distance learning, what are the MN bus drivers supposed to do!!? All of the jobs we are experienced to do involve driving. SO, those jobs like city bus drivers (MN PRIME, METRO TRANSIT, METRO MOBILITY, etc) are also furloughed. This has been my career for 18 plus years and I love it. How do we get to 55 years old in this business, get background and drug tested and uphold a very important but overlooked job and be struggling to stay alive? A lot of us work in management and have made a great life for ourselves, how do we get jobs at 55 and no other experience, to PAY what we’ve worked so hard to build up to at our transportation jobs? I don’t even know who else to call, write to (call GOV Walz about every darn week) with a general email back saying it’s “been read but due to overwhelming circumstances no one could respond at this time” OMG are you KIDDING ME? I’m at a loss, I am depressed about it all. My life was so good before all this. Now I can’t make ends meet. Applying for jobs with a “Sorry the position has been filled” Depresses me more. Signed up for MN WORKERS.NET signed up and posted resumes on INDEED, ZIP RECRUITER to MONSTER ETC, so it’s not like we’re not trying. I WANT MY DAMN JOB BACK. If anyone can help, please let me know….I am at a loss…. and the companies that hire us….wow. I’m at a loss for words at how we’ve been left with no answers. My school I drive for released a back to 2020-21 plan with not ONE WORD about transportation. Makes me sick. Blessings, prayers and love to all my fellow drivers suffering. Hope we can do something. Can we PICKET? Can we do something? I am willing to help. HANG IN THERE, I feel like someone is going to help us.

  3. Is there any updates in regards to this meeting? I am a para in the anoka/hennepin district. I have had countless nights crying myself to sleep knowing so many are receiving unemployment and extra funding while I along with many others are faced with debt, losing homes, and not knowing. With out pay from not able to do summer school I now have multiple creditors after me cause I can not pay, I have cancelled our cable/internet, I have found a church near by that hands out food just so I cam feed my children.
    I have applied for multiple jobs as many have now hiring signs and needing something and you just sot and wait for call backs. It is frustrating.
    We should be allowed something. Many of us rely on summer school, many of us have children at home, and it is not fair to see multiple people around you able to collect more money during this pandemic on unemployment then working their actual job. While we sit back and not have a single dollar come in and fear for not knowing how to pay for even groceries.

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