Unions want hourly school workers to get unemployment

School buses
Buses from St. Clair, Minn.-based Palmer Bus Company waited in St. Paul on as kids toured the State Capitol on Jan. 29, 2008.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Under current Minnesota rules, bus drivers, teacher assistants and other hourly school workers are not allowed to apply for unemployment when school is out for the summer. But five different union groups are asking state lawmakers to change that rule. 

“It’s hard to find someone to hire you for only two months out of the year,” said Yasmin Muridi, a bilingual support staffer at Highwood Hills Elementary School in St. Paul. 

She has worked long hours during the pandemic to help support students and keep them connected to their teachers and their schools, she said. 

“Education support professionals like me serve not just students but parents, teachers and administrators every day. We are the backbones of every public school and every district,” Muridi said. “We do all of this work during the school year for little pay, and then many of us have no support in the summers. That is because our school workers don’t have access to unemployment.” 

Changing Minnesota law to allow hourly school workers to access unemployment benefits when school is not in session is something Muridi said would make a big difference for her and other hourly school workers. 

Russell Packard, a special education teacher assistant in the St. Paul Public School district, said the pandemic has made it especially difficult to find temporary work when school is out. 

“Until last year when COVID hit, I had been consistently able to find work in the summer, but in my hour of need, after decades of stable employment, I was denied unemployment benefits,” Packard said. “I was shocked to learn that my home state, Minnesota, chooses to grant unemployment benefits to seasonal workers but not to educators.”

The law excludes hourly school workers from unemployment insurance if they’re given reasonable assurance that they will have a job when school resumes. 

Packard said changing the law would help schools retain employees and reduce the cost of onboarding and training new workers. 

“Each year some of our most trained and experienced [teaching assistants] leave education for the stability of a 12-month job,” Packard said. “Denying hourly wage educators the safety net of unemployment insurance is not only cruel and unjust, it also harms schools, students and families.” 

Advocates of the law change have said they want to use one-time federal COVID-19 relief money to fund the change and argue the money would help pilot the program. 

“It is our hope that we make a permanent change and find ways to fund school districts into the future,” said Chris Stinson, the political director for SEIU Local 284. “As part of the legislative negotiations, we’ve been talking about whether the folks who have been opposed to the bill until now would be willing to do one year as kind of a pilot while feds are covering 75 percent of the cost.”

The bill has bipartisan support and while the House has passed it, the Senate has not.

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