California lawmakers consider summer unemployment benefits for school classified workers

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On the surface Esmeralda Torres may appear to be doing OK in today’s economy. She works 30 hours a week, earning $21 per hour as a special education teaching assistant at Carson High School. Her L.A. Unified employee union has secured paid health insurance for her and her family.

But, she said, she's about to have a problem: “It’s very hard during the summer because I’m not working or getting paid,” she said.

Torres is one of 284,000 classified public school workers in California. Others in this category include janitors, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers.

During the summers Torres sells tostadas and tamales for around $2.50 each in her neighborhood to help pay for her two daughters’ college payments, a car payment, a mortgage, and the times that her husband isn’t called to work unloading freight coming in to the L.A. Harbor.

Classified workers who work fewer hours and earn less are worse off.

“The median income for classified employees in the state of California is approximately $21,000 per year. They do not have middle-class incomes,” said Max Arias, the executive director of SEIU Local 99, which represents 30,000 L.A. Unified classified employees, two thirds of which earn $13 an hour. Their hourly rate will go up to $15 per hour in July. 

“I was a classroom teacher for 13 years and I personally have had to help classified employees during the summer when they’re asking for five dollars, 10 dollars to exist because they don’t have a salary,” said Downey area State Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia.

Now, Garcia has authored Assembly Bill 2197, which would allow these classified workers to collect unemployment insurance even though their school expects them back to work in the fall.

The bill – expected to be on the assembly floor on Wednesday for a vote – would be phased in over the next four years, Garcia said, costing the state $90 million the first year and $360 million the fourth. In the fourth year classified employees would be paid $434 per month for two months during the summer.

“We’re really just giving them a lifeline," Garicia said. "We’re not solving their problem completely."

Governor Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance opposes the bill, as does the California School Boards Association, the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE), and the Riverside County Superintendent of Schools.

The finance department said “the cost of paying these additional benefits will result in unknown, but potentially significant costs to the state and public school employers.”

In a letter sent to Garcia, OCDE’s Sacramento lobbyist Jeffrey Frost, said the unemployment benefits would raise costs and lead to instability in school district reserves because the payments would deplete Orange County’s School Employment Fund in year three.

“Should AB 2197 become law, unemployment benefit payments in Orange County would increase by $11.8 million to $17.6 million in 2016-17 and reach approximately $43.2 to $64.1 million in 2019-20,” Frost wrote.

Other school district advocates also wanted to know where the money would come from to pay for this benefit.

The funds won’t come out of the yearly education funding guarantee known as Prop. 98, Garcia said, and if the state is short on funds or if the economy goes sour the benefit would be put on pause.

“In the long haul if we have people in homes and they’re being healthy, they’re meeting their basic needs it costs us less,” Garcia said.

CORRECTION:  A previous version of this story said two thirds of LAUSD classified workers earn between $9-$10 an hour. KPCC regrets the error.

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