As Minnesota lawmakers debate whether to give schools relief from making up for this year’s long list of weather-related cancellations, many of the state’s school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and other hourly workers are worrying about their paychecks.
Unlike teachers and school administrators, who earn salaries and are paid even when snowstorms and frigid windchills close schools, school districts’ armies of hourly employees typically go without pay when school is canceled. After a winter in which many districts shut down for six, eight or even 12 days, many of those workers are feeling financially pinched — and anxious that districts will shorten their school year without making up for the reduction in wages.
Before the run of snow days, Northfield educational assistant Carolyn Manderfeld was working three jobs to make ends meet. Now, to make up for pay lost to snow days, she’s added a fourth job and is still worrying about making her mortgage payments.
“I had to dip into my savings [to pay] my taxes,” she said, “and it’s an ouch.”
Both the state House and Senate have approved bills that would allow schools to count at least some of their snow days as instructional days, avoiding the need to add on to the school calendar to meet state requirements for instructional time. But the bills differ on some specifics.
The version approved by the House only applies to three days in late January when many districts canceled classes because of extreme temperatures. The Senate version is more expansive, allowing districts — with school board approval — to count other canceled days as instructional time.
Only the House bill addresses the question of pay for hourly employees. It includes a provision that requires that hourly employees, including contract workers like bus drivers, be compensated for the lost time or given the opportunity to make it up.
Speaking before the House voted 105-21 to approve the bill this week, Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis, said lawmakers wanted to ensure that hourly school employers were “not treated unfairly.”
“We recognize the essential role they play, whether it’s serving up lunch or driving the students to and from school or supervising the playground at recess or whatever their work may be, is also critical and that their families need our support as well,” he said.
But as a joint committee of House and Senate members works to merge the two bills into a single plan, it’s still unclear how the pay issue will fit into the final version.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, chairwoman of the Senate education finance and policy committee, said she’s spent time listening to hourly workers and understands their concerns. But she’s also wary of the state stepping in to alter labor contracts between school districts and their employees.
“The intent on our side was to keep our schools whole so there would not be this tension between safety and having school on a day when it was unsafe to be out,” she said.
A new wrinkle in the discussion is the relatively recent practice by some districts of taking “e-learning” days when weather forces schools to shut down. Students are expected to log on at home to complete coursework, rather than showing up at school. Minnesota now allows districts to count up to five e-learning days each year as instructional days. Some lawmakers have suggested that the state allow districts to take even more e-learning days to keep students out of harm’s way and avoid lengthening the school year.
If that happened, however, it could add up to more days in which cafeteria workers, bus drivers and educational assistants would likely go without pay.
In some cases, hourly workers’ contracts provide for some wiggle room. Manderfeld, the educational assistant in Northfield, said her contract provides for pay on the first two snow days. After that, her options are to use one of the two personal days she has for the entire year or go without pay. She used her last personal day, which she’d hoped to save so she could attend her daughter’s graduation, on one of the district’s many weather cancellations.
In the Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose district, northwest of the Twin Cities, special education assistant Char VanBergen said her contract does not guarantee pay for any snow days. After a half-dozen cancellations, plus a couple of late-start and early release days, she said many of her co-workers are feeling anxious about their finances. She’s not sure that forcing districts to add days at the end of the year is the best solution, because many education paraprofessionals work multiple jobs and already have their summer work schedules lined up.
But as lawmakers shape a final bill, VanBergen is hopeful they will make some attempt to relieve the financial stress brought on by a particularly chaotic winter.
“If [teachers] get paid and they’re not in school, and their job is to teach students when they’re in school, then why aren’t we getting paid?” she said.