School Workers Eligible for Aid In Jobless
School-district officials across the country are bracing for possible battles in their respective statehouses over legislation that could leave districts paying out hundreds of thousands-- perhaps millions of dollars annually in unemployment benefits.
At issue is a little-known provision contained in the federal unemployment-compensation bill signed by President Bush last November. It gives states the option of making nonprofessional school personnel-such as bus drivers, maintenance workers, and food-service workers eligible for unemployment compensation during the summer months when they are not employed by their school districts.
"It's [potentially] devastating. There's no other way to say it," said Laurie A. Westley, the chief legislative counsel for the National School Boards Association.
"There are schools that are having a hard time keeping their athletics programs, keeping their music programs," she said, "and then you add [a payout of] $8 million or $9 million--there isn't discretionary money left."
District administrators, school- board officials, and representatives of the N.S.B.A. and the American Association of School Administrators said that local districts would be required to reimburse fully the federal unemployment-insurance fund should the school workers be granted the summertime benefits.
Typically, private-sector employers pay a percentage of their employees' wages into the federal fund. State and local governments, however, can choose not to pay unemployment taxes; instead, government employers--including school districts--reimburse the fund in full when one of their employees receives unemployment benefits.
While school-board and administrator forces are voicing alarm at the 1991 law's potential impact, the measure has strong backing from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, both of which include nonprofessional school workers among their members.
$90-Million Tab in Texas?
New state legislation covering nonprofessional employees would have little effect on state budgets, but it could mean huge outlays for some school districts.
Districts in Texas, for example, would be forced to pay out a total of $90 million annually should that state enact legislation allowing nonprofessional employees to receive summer benefits, according to estimates from the Texas Association of School Boards.
The Bayonne, N.J., school district would stand to lose $125,000 annually should such legislation pass in that state, said James Murphy, the district's superintendent. While that may not seem like much out of a $43- million annual school budget, Mr. Murphy said, the Bayonne schools already face a $1.9-million reduction in state aid in the next fiscal year.
"Every $125,000 hurts," Mr. Murphy said.
In larger metropolitan-area districts, the figure would be well in excess of $1 million a year, Ms. Westley of the N.S.B.A. said.
An early showdown over such legislation may come in California, where the California School Employees Association has already consulted with Democratic leaders about introducing a bill that would extend summer unemployment benefits to some of the union's members.
"We've been actively working on this issue and tracking it for years," David Low, the association's assistant director for government relations, said last week. "We were very pleased with the change."
The union would find itself fighting the California School Boards Association, which opposes any such legislation. "In a state where the fiscal condition is as awful as it is, I don't think there's money for this," said Brian Lewis, the group's senior legislative advocate.
"Classified employees know when they're hired that there's a time during the year when they're not going to be employed," said Mr. Lewis. "For them to come back and try to add this responsibility on the state is wrong."
Union officials in other states, including Texas and New Jersey, said last week that they needed more time to study the issue before deciding on a lobbying strategy. We're not ready with our effort to move legislation in that direction," said Dolores Corona, the director of government relations for the New Jersey Education Association. "It's a bit early."
The change in unemployment- eligibility rules comes at a time when districts are already paying more unemployment claims because lower state appropriations are leading to more layoffs at the local level. In addition, widespread state cuts in education funding are leaving districts with less money to work with.
William Pugh, the director of employee relations for the Fairfax County, Va., schools, asked: "Would [paying out more benefits] mean we would no longer be able to hire 6, 8, 10, 12 more teachers to go face-to-face with students in the classroom?"
Ms. Westley of the N.S.B.A. was more blunt. "Which administrators do you get rid of?. Which teachers do you get rid of?. Which maintenance people do you get rid of?." she asked.
'Fairness' Issue for Unions
Washington-based lobbyists for the N.E.A. and the A.F.T. See the unemployment-compensation change as a matter of fairness. The two national teachers' unions lobbied the Congress in behalf of the measure.
"School employees have been discriminated against," said Michael Edwards, the manager of Congressional relations for the N.E.A. "It's not like this is a new and extended or expanded benefit. They're being brought to parity with every single other worker."
Mr. Edwards said that other public employees--except teachers, administrators, and librarians who expect to be rehired the following semester-are entitled to such benefits. "All this asks for is simple justice," he said.
Mr. Edwards also said that because some employees sign a contract to work a limited number of months is no reason to deny them benefits available to similar workers in other settings.
Gregory Humphrey, the director of legislation for the A.F.T., said a change in state rules would require school districts to be fairer to nonprofessional employees, who sometimes return to school in the fall only to find they no longer have jobs. Furthermore, Mr. Humphrey added, "districts won't pay any more than they're rightfully obligated to pay" if state lawmakers do make nonprofessionals eligible for summer benefits. Most districts, he said, have saved considerable amounts of money over the years by choosing not to contribute to the federal unemployment-insurance fund.
Banned in 1983
Nonprofessional school employees, like other public employees, became eligible to receive federal unemployment benefits in the mid-1970's. But in 1983, the Congress struck the school employees from the program.
Since then, the N.E.A., the A.F.T., other unions, and Representatives Robert T. Matsui, Democrat of California, and Thomas J. Downey, Democrat of New York, have worked to reinstate the provision that made nonprofessional employees eligible for benefits between school years.
When the Congress last summer began considering a bill to extend the unemployment benefits of workers laid off during the recession, the two legislators found their vehicle. The provision was included in the House version of the unemployment bill, HR 3575, but did not make its way into the Senate version.
Rather than take the two bills to a conference committee, the House passed the Senate bill, S 1722, and the school-employee issue was temporarily settled.
President Bush vetoed S 1722, however, and members of the Congress sought to fashion a compromise bill that he would sign.
They did so hurriedly, and in the haste to get the bill passed and signed, according to Congressional aides and education lobbyists, several provisions were included in the bill that might not have survived had the bill not been rushed through the process. Among such provisions in HR 3575, the bill that ultimately became law, was the state option for school employees.
According to an aide with the House Ways and Means Committee, while the Democrats supported the provision and the Republicans moderately opposed it, neither side was overly concerned about it.
"No one was going to kill a bill over this," the aide said. "If the Administration would've said, 'No, no, no, no,' it would've been out."
In the States
Now the attention turns to the states, where, as soon as this spring, legislators can be expected to discuss the issue.
According to both Mr. Edwards of the N.E.A. and Ms. Westley of the N.S.B.A., about 10 states in which school employees were eligible for unemployment benefits before the 1983 ban are likely to enact the legislation easily. But that list includes mostly less populous states, such as Alaska, Montana, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming.
This time around, Mr. Edwards expects that several larger states with active, well-organized educational-support personnel--such as New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey--will also see strong lobbying efforts for new legislation. "Each state has to decide on an appropriate strategy to pursue," he said of the union's state affiliates.
Despite their enthusiasm for the change in federal unemployment rules, some union leaders admit that fiscal considerations may influence their actions at the state level.
"We have to be aware of the financial impact," said Allen Short, the director of government affairs for the Michigan Education Association. "We're in dire straits in Michigan trying to handle our current program, so we'll have to sit down and see what the pros and cons" of new legislation might be.
In New York, the state legislature is currently dealing almost exclusively with the budget, so it is premature to talk about pushing any new legislation, said Robert Rice, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers, an A.F.T. affiliate that is also planning its strategy.
"We're exploring the possibilities" for later in the year, he added.