As Shutdown Continues, Some Government Workers Turn to Substitute Teaching

By Sarah Schwartz — January 11, 2019 3 min read
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With the government shutdown having thrust 800,000 federal workers into financial uncertainty, several school districts in the Washington, D.C., metro area are offering furloughed employees an alternative job option: becoming a substitute teacher.

In Fairfax County, Va., the district is holding two hiring events specifically for furloughed federal employees—one today and one on Tuesday. Both are at capacity, and the district is considering adding a third, said a spokeswoman for the school system.

Schools in Prince William County, Va., and Prince George’s County, Md., are also encouraging those affected by the shutdown to apply for positions. In addition to substitute teachers, Prince William County has also suggested furloughed employees apply to be temporary teachers’ assistants, substitute bus drivers, or swim instructors.

“We’re in Washington, D.C.'s backyard, and we are hearing from community members who have been impacted by the government shutdown, and we’re just trying to do whatever we can to help the parents of our students,” said Diana Gulotta, a spokeswoman for Prince William County schools. The district emailed its 150,000-member parent listserv on Friday with a message pointing to open positions and inviting furloughed workers to apply.

For government employees currently without a salary, a temporary job as a substitute could provide extra income to stay afloat. It’s unclear how long the shutdown will continue, and if the government doesn’t reopen before Saturday, it will be the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

For these school districts, the additional workers could play an important role. “The unemployment rate right now is fairly low, which is impacting our ability to fill positions,” said Gulotta. Placing furloughed federal employees in those jobs would be a “win-win,” she said.

Necessary Source of Income

Ernie Tamayo, a human resources specialist with a federal agency, decided it was time to start looking for temporary employment as his furlough entered its third week, he said.

He saw a Tweet from the human resources team in Prince William County schools, inviting federal workers to apply for substitute jobs, and he applied within days.

Tamayo had started looking into part-time teaching last year, hoping to teach a college course in addition to his federal job. Now, he thinks that working with K-12 students could be a good way for him to explore the education profession.

“It’s also an opportunity to give a service to my local community,” said Tamayo. “Given my background—I was in the military before, I work in the federal government—I’ve really tried to gear my career toward public service, and teaching is a more local way to do that.”

And finding a source of additional income is quickly becoming necessary. “I’m trying to be proactive,” he said. His financial situation is stable for now, he said, but he’ll need to find more work to pay his bills if the shutdown continues past the end of January.

Tamayo is also planning to apply to a substitute job in Manassas City schools, and he’s put in an application for a human resources position at a university as well. Hourly pay for a substitute job with Prince William County is only one-third as much as he makes in his current job. (Across Prince William, Fairfax, and Prince George’s counties, substitutes who haven’t worked as fully certified teachers before make about $100 a day.)

Substitute qualifications differ from district to district, and not all furloughed employees would be eligible.

Prince George’s County, for example, requires that applicants have worked in a classroom environment for at least six months or with groups of children in another setting for at least a year, according to the district website.

When the shutdown ends, any newly minted substitutes may want to leave these districts and return to their federal jobs. Districts say that schedules are flexible enough to allow workers to do this—in Prince William and Prince George’s counties, substitutes have to meet days worked quotas to remain in the system, but they can choose to let their eligibility lapse, according to district spokeswomen.

Tamayo said if he were hired in Prince William County, he would likely continue working as a substitute even after the government opens again. Teaching, he said, “is an ongoing goal for me.”

Photo: USDA employee Lona Powell, center, holds up her sign as she joins union members and other federal employees at a rally to call for an end to the partial government shutdown at AFL-CIO Headquarters in Washington. Powell has been on furlough at the Department of Agriculture since Dec. 22, 2018. —Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.