A new Minnesota law that provided relief to school districts struggling to catch up after a long run of weather-related cancellations is prompting a new debate over when and how custodians, bus drivers, educational assistants and other hourly workers should be compensated for missed days.
The “Snow Day Relief Act” passed this year by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Tim Walz allowed districts to count days canceled for “health and safety concerns” toward their required instructional time, rather than having to make days up at the end of the school year. That flexibility came with a catch: If districts counted a missed day as instructional time, they’d need to compensate hourly employees or offer them additional hours on another day.
Walz and legislators who backed the provision said their aim was simple: to make hourly workers whole after a particularly unpredictable school year. But in practice, it’s been far more complicated, leaving some school administrators and workers at odds over union contracts, makeup days and the level of respect offered to school staff.
Becky Hespen, president of a union representing about 850 educational support professionals — most of whom work in classrooms — said her group spent the last two months of the school year trying to make the case to the district that they should be paid for more days. With the school year over, the issue remains unresolved.
“It’s really sad we’re still fighting this now,” said Hespen, who works for Osseo Area Schools.
Part of the complication comes from the wide variation in district calendars, the number of missed days and the many separate contracts districts have with hourly workers. In some cases, pay for all weather cancellations — or at least a few days — is built into staff contracts. Other contracts lack those benefits.
Further complicating the picture: Because it took the Legislature months to pass the snow day measure, many districts made alternate plans to compensate workers for lost time, scheduling classes on what would have been teacher workdays or school holidays, or tacking on makeup days elsewhere in the school calendar. Some had enough extra instructional hours built into the school calendar that they didn’t need to count missed days as instructional time — meaning that the law wouldn’t require them to compensate their hourly workers.
Hespen said most of the workers in her group ended up being unpaid for one day, without the option of making up hours. She said those lost wages, coupled with the uncertainty around a number of paychecks through the winter, has been a major hardship on workers who often struggle to make ends meet.
Osseo district spokeswoman Barbara Olson said district officials couldn’t answer questions on the topic because they are actively involved in talks with union leaders.
“We are working hard — and collaboratively with union leaders — to find ways to make the remaining hourly employees whole through adjustments to next year’s work calendar,” she said.
In the Forest Lake district, some bus drivers took issue with the district’s plan to offer a makeup date a week after the school year ended — a time when some had scheduled vacations or commitments for other jobs.
Superintendent Steve Massey said sorting out the plan was a challenge, especially because the district’s last weather cancellation came in April, rather than earlier in the year when there’s plenty of time to find makeup dates. But he said the district did its best to offer workers an opportunity to recoup their pay within the parameters of the law.
“We believe that if we are going to pay an employment group, it’s prudent and wise for us to provide a work makeup opportunity for them to earn that pay, rather than just straight pay,” he said.
Makeup days also proved to be a problem for some hourly workers in Northfield, where schools were closed for 11 days last year — including a fall cancellation for a tornado.
Jacob Odell, an educational assistant, said that while some hourly workers were able to accommodate the many schedule changes, others who work multiple jobs ended up losing out. Depending on the season, Odell said, he works three or four jobs at a time — and he isn’t alone. He said this year’s cancellations meant losing about $700 in pay, an amount significant enough that it’s caused him to miss bill payments as he’s tried to keep up with rent, student loans and other obligations. Odell worries that if there are more severe winters ahead, the uncertainty could push educational assistants to seek other work — to the detriment of the districts that depend on them.
“The turnover in our jobs especially is high because it’s so demanding,” he said.
Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann said the district worked to address those concerns during the school year and is drafting new plans this summer. The district doubled the number of paid snow days provided in educational assistants’ labor contract, and offered makeup days to try to compensate for some of the lost pay.
Going forward, Hillmann said district officials are formalizing a plan for hourly employees’ role in “e-learning” days, which more districts are opting to use for some weather cancellations. They’re also thinking more broadly about how schools should prepare for the possibility of more years packed with wild weather.
“We hope this is not a harbinger of winters to come, but I think we all have to understand there is change happening in our weather patterns that is really due to climate change,” he said, “and we have to try to make sure we’re responding in a way that is proactive.”
State Rep. Todd Lippert, a DFLer who represents Northfield, said he’s been working with hourly workers and the district on the pay issue. He expects the Legislature might take up the topic again next year.
“I think there will be some efforts to try to keep working on this legislation to make sure it’s a better fit,” he said.