Hourly school workers now eligible for summer jobless benefits in Minnesota

People stand on steps and talk
Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, stood with hourly school workers and labor union leaders Tuesday at the University of Minnesota to mark the first day that school workers could apply for jobless insurance benefits from the state if they're laid off over the summer.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Tens of thousands of school bus drivers, nutrition staff, paraprofessionals and education support staff in Minnesota can apply for unemployment insurance benefits starting Tuesday.

Minnesota lawmakers this month approved, and Gov. Tim Walz signed into law, a change that allows the workers to access partial wage replacement through the state if they’re unable to find temporary work during the summer.

The law makes Minnesota the first state to issue benefits to hourly school workers laid off after the school year ends on a permanent basis.

“Today, we are ending an 80-year exclusion of hourly school workers from our unemployment system, the folks who feed and drive and care for and support our students on campuses and in our schools,” said Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis. “And this bill could not come at a better time. It is way overdue, as we said, we are 80 years behind. But we are the first state in the nation to do this. And we know we will not be the last.”

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For years, workers pressed lawmakers to make the change and to cover them the same way that unemployment insurance covers other seasonal workers. They faced opposition from school administrators, school boards and Republican lawmakers who raised concerns about the potential cost of growing the pool of potential applicants.

Paraprofessionals, school bus drivers and labor union leaders who supported the legislation discussed its potential impact during a press conference at the University of Minnesota on Tuesday. They told reporters the law change would provide them a financial safety net if they’re unable to find temporary work in the summer.

The state’s unemployment insurance program requires that those drawing partial pay replacement from the state be actively looking for other employment opportunities.

“We are a profession of mostly women and mostly BIPOC folks, it took us until 2023 to get the same financial safety net that construction workers and other seasonal workers have had for decades,” said Catina Taylor, an education support paraprofessional from Minneapolis. “That old decision to exclude us led to the current shortages of ESPs (educational support professionals) in school districts all over the state.”

The law’s backers said the change could also improve recruitment and retention, since workers would have a safety net to count on if they were unable to find summer jobs to fill the void.

“For the first time, I have the same basic economic security as my boys who work construction,” said Cat Briggs, a school bus driver in the Rosemount, Apple Valley, Eagan school district. “My husband and I will have to be careful with our money but unlike other summers, I'll be able to drive to my son's place in Kenyon and help with my two grandbabies without worrying about affording gas.”