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 Union, Education Minnesota, AFSCME 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.”