Bus drivers, classroom assistants, maintenance workers and other hourly school employees say they are facing a "catastrophic" situation as they wait to find out if schools will reopen this fall.

Unlike other seasonal workers, school employees are not eligible for unemployment in the summer if they have "reasonable assurance" that they'll have a job again in the fall. But with the pandemic prompting school closures around the country — and Minnesota schools still waiting for a decision on reopening — school workers say they need help.

In a news conference Thursday, leaders of labor unions that represent hourly school employees said they're pressing lawmakers to change state law so they'd be treated like resort, construction and landscaping workers who can apply for unemployment in the offseason. Without it, they said many workers will have to find other jobs — leaving schools without the staff they'll need when it's time to reopen.

Teresa Jakubowski, a school bus driver in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, said about half of the 300 bus drivers in her district typically work during the summer, driving students to and from summer school and other programs. But with schools shut down, drivers lost that income and aren't sure if more will be coming this fall.

Jakubowski said the loss means that her family is living paycheck to paycheck and expecting to run up credit card debt to cover necessities. But she considers herself fortunate; she said other bus drivers are taking lower-wage jobs or even selling family heirlooms as they wait to learn if they'll be needed this fall.

"Some have considered not returning to driving because their income is so uncertain," she said. "And when we do go back to school, is our transportation department even going to have enough workers to cover the shifts?"

Ronnie Sprigler, a teaching assistant for St. Paul Public Schools, said the disparity in how hourly workers are considered under state law make them feel undervalued — even as they have stepped up to provide essential services in the pandemic, such as delivering school lunches and caring for the children of emergency workers.

"We get called 'essential,' 'front-line' workers, but this is how we get treated," she said. "It's wrong."

The union leaders said they've had little success in building support among state lawmakers or leaders of their school districts for changing the rules around unemployment. They say they're frustrated about the lack of momentum on that issue and a lack of assurances about whether they'll have jobs — and how schools will ensure they can do those jobs safely.

Meanwhile, concerns about safety protocols in schools have already become an issue at a summer school program in the Osseo school district, where staff members protested this week. Brittany Robinson, site coordinator for the Freedom Schools program, said the district has failed to provide cleaning supplies, impose social distancing requirements or listen to staff members' concerns.

"We haven't had proper training," she said. "We have scholars who have disabilities, heart conditions, special needs, who [live] with elders, so we have to be more careful."

In response, the district shut down its Freedom Schools program for the rest of the week "to look deeply into the concerns staff reported and take appropriate action," said district spokeswoman Barbara Olson. The program is scheduled to restart July 21, after the district provides additional safety training.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790