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The American Independent

School closures mean millions of unsalaried workers aren't getting paid

Substitute teachers and aides have been largely left jobless amid the pandemic — and few are guaranteed a job when schools reopen in the fall.

By Liz Posner - April 29, 2020
teachers, students

Schools are ecosystems that involve not just students, teachers, and administrators — each school also includes dozens of behind-the-scenes, unsalaried workers who make education possible.

Part-time school staff not only play an essential supporting role in keeping a school running, they’re also key characters in students’ lives, providing stability and security. Now, as coronavirus has shuttered school doors across the country, these vital members of the education community are being forgotten.

As children and their teachers struggle to continue education online, millions of unsalaried staff like substitute teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and teaching aides have lost their income entirely.


There are approximately 600,000 substitute teachers across the country. Although no organization is tracking substitute teacher unemployment in real time, STEDI, an organization that provides subs with training and support, found in a recent survey that almost all the substitute teachers in its network are now facing a complete lack of work, many without benefits like health care.

One substitute teacher surveyed by STEDI even said that subs didn’t even receive proper notice about coronavirus spreading at their school.

The teacher, who responded anonymously to the survey, said that even as the coronavirus began overwhelming U.S. states, substitutes were left out of the loop.

“Last night I heard that there is a positive case of the COVID virus at one of our schools,” they wrote on March 17. “Everyone was notified, staff, parents, etc. via email and urged to quarantine themselves for 14 days. No subs were notified.”

Up until mid-March, Carlos Petty worked every day as a special ed high school substitute teacher in Texas. Now he’s out of work completely.

“Going from making money to making nothing sucks,” Petty said. “I receive no benefits as a sub. I’m a disabled vet so I get a check every month and my wife works. But as a man, you want to work and take care of your family. Not being able to do that is depressing.”

Angela Lundberg, a K-12 substitute teacher in Minneapolis, echoed that frustration.

“My last day of subbing was March 13. I live paycheck to paycheck and I do not receive health insurance through substitute teaching. I don’t have paid vacations or paid medical leave. If I don’t work, then I don’t get paid.”

Lundberg, like many other part-time workers, sought government assistance right away. “I applied for unemployment, which I did start getting — just $140 a week. Plus I got $600 for COVID-19 relief,” she said.

Given that Minneapolis has one of the highest costs of living of any city in North America, Lundberg feels that amount is insufficient.

Lundberg has several other part-time jobs, as a freelance writer and photographer. But all of these gigs are hard to come by now due to the economic downturn and shelter-in-place orders.

As one of 133 million Americans living with a chronic illness, she depends on a roster of flexible part-time jobs to pay the bills.

“I’m kind of forced into subbing as a day job due to having a serious chronic illness — rheumatoid arthritis. I need the flexibility for medical appointments, if and when I have flare-ups,” she said.

Unsalaried school workers are largely at the mercy of their school districts to determine if they’ll receive paychecks during the shutdown, and education departments’ reactions to the pandemic have varied.

Some districts have been supportive: Los Angeles was one of the first school districts to promise to announce it would continue paying substitute teachers during school closures. A few others have followed.

But the STEDI survey found that only 25% of substitute teachers are still being compensated by their districts.

The situation for substitute teachers is so dire, STEDI’s Chief Education Officer Jessica Smith said, that “subs are far more worried about their income than their health” — even during a pandemic.

While many substitutes have unfortunately lost their jobs as schools moved to online platforms, Dr. Carlos Beato, principal at the International High School at Langley Park in Maryland, says that his school is trying to at least protect other unsalaried staff, including long term substitute teachers.

“I think that our district is doing a great job of protecting some of our employees who are most vulnerable,” he said. “In the case that a school has a long term sub, they are still able to keep them on their payroll and continue working. All of our other workers are still getting paid and if they had health insurance, they still have it.”

Ultimately, the amount of support unsalaried school staff may receive depends on the income level of the school where they teach.

“Superintendents are scrambling to do the best they can to keep nonsalaried staff getting paychecks and working. But wealthier school districts are able to support unsalaried staff better, since they have more resources,” said David Lewis, Executive Director at ASBO International, a professional association for workers who keep school buildings running, such as transportation and food service workers, custodial, IT, and HR payroll staff.

Poorer schools are less likely to be fully staffed right now, he said. “Sadly, a massive disruption like this perpetuates the misconception that poorer districts are bad school districts, and parents don’t want their kids to go there.”

Custodians, classroom aides, and special education

Only 60% of school districts are continuing to pay part-time employees during the closures, according to the STEDI survey. In addition to substitute teachers, that category includes custodians.

“A lot of districts are trying to keep custodial service employed,” said Lewis. “There is still plenty of work to do in the buildings, and custodians can continue to work safely without students there and while maintaining safe social distance. Maybe painting and additional cleaning is needed right now.”

Other vital classroom workers like teacher aides and special needs counselors, however, are out of work completely, left at the mercy of their school districts to decide whether to support them or not — even though they are desperately needed, Lewis said.

“Teacher aides, special needs counselors — they don’t get the respect they deserve,” he said. “The law providing services for children with special needs is highly regulated, but we still haven’t heard how districts are going to be held accountable for providing services to students when their instructors can’t be physically near them.”

He added, “You can’t use online learning for severely disabled students. It’s an elephant in the room.”

Bureaucracy is preventing districts from doing more to support unsalaried staff. Administrators fear that they will be penalized later on for paying these workers to stay at home.

Public schools are prohibited from “gifting public funds,” meaning that schools cannot use public money without proving that the funds are going to practical use. But no special adjustments have been issued yet by the federal government that would explicitly allow schools to support unsalaried workers during the pandemic.

“We’re getting a huge infusion of money now, but schools are worried they’ll be audited for taking money out of the wrong bucket later on,” Lewis said. “When we’re stewards of public money, it’s in our DNA to ask: are we doing it the right way?”

Cafeteria workers

Cafeteria workers are perhaps more essential than ever, but even they have seen their jobs become more difficult or lost pay or benefits as a result of the pandemic.

Twenty two million American children depend on free or reduced-cost school meals each day. Public schools are lawfully bound to provide these meals, and have had to make drastic adjustments to deliver food to students even though classes are canceled.

School buses have become food trucks and bus drivers have become food runners; daily, they pick up breakfasts and lunches from their school cafeteria and bring them to a centralized pickup spot so that students without access to a car don’t go hungry.

Some cafeteria workers say their schools have been generous.

Angela Hannon, Kitchen Manager at Mapleton Public Schools in Thornton, Colorado, called her school district “incredible.”

“We get the pay we were already getting, plus they are giving us an additional 50% of our pay for certain hours for anything we do above the allowed overtime if we voluntarily choose to. We are not obligated to do it at all; we have many staff members who have decided to stay at home with their children and they are still getting their normal pay.”

But not all cafeteria workers have been untouched by mass layoffs.

“Many of the cafeteria workers in the schools where I teach have lost their jobs, however it was up to the individual districts whether they would be given benefits or not,” said Josh Bryzelak, a substitute teacher in Michigan.

The future

A recession is looming, which will drastically reduce school budgets. It also means an uncertain future for unsalaried school staff.

“In the fall, there will be a slow process of trying to bring unsalaried workers back,” said Lewis. “The most crucial will return first. It’s too bad, but teacher aides, librarians, and what some people consider ‘the luxury’ staff are always first to go and last to be brought back.”

What would help unsalaried staff most now is more flexible government aid, and faster. While educators like Lewis are grateful for the $3 billion in federal relief that has been granted to governors to support state education at their discretion, it’s still not enough.

“$3 billion is not nearly adequate,” he said. “The funds will need to be replenished.”

Meanwhile, those at the bottom are left struggling in the short and long-term.

“Subs are so important, Lundberg said. “It’s such a tough job, yet we’re working with hardly any safety nets.”

She added, “It’s really tough not knowing what the future will bring.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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