A proposal seeking to guarantee pay for Minnesota's hourly school workers during coronavirus closures cleared the DFL-controlled House on Monday, setting the stage for an end-of-session tangle with Republicans who say it would raise costs and reduce flexibility for school districts.
The proposal has not advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate, where top lawmakers argue it would conflict with state guidance without actually preventing layoffs.
The Minnesota Department of Education has urged school districts to keep bus drivers, cafeteria staff, paraprofessionals and other contract employees on the payroll following the transition to distance learning. In March, Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said she and Gov. Tim Walz "expect schools to continue paying their hourly workers."
The House bill, which passed on 83-49 vote, codifies that guidance by preventing the reduction of hours for workers. Rep. Jim Davnie, a Minneapolis Democrat sponsoring the bill, said the proposal will provide more financial security for workers while "holding school districts financially whole" by giving them more flexibility to tap and redirect previously appropriated funds to cover the costs.
"We need to show these workers that we have their backs, as they have our children's backs every day," said Davnie, who chairs a key House education committee.
School worker pay is one of several issues that remain unresolved before the Legislature adjourns on May 18. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, has called the measure a top priority for Democrats. The Department of Education also supports the change. Hourly workers "play a very important role in our student's education during distance learning and deserve to be paid," Ricker said in a statement.
But Republican Sen. Carla Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee, said while she supports some provisions in the bill, including more flexibility for funding streams, she's concerned that the DFL measure will create confusion and "cost our schools more that they don't have" by including workers in fee-based programs who are not protected by updated state guidance.
"I don't believe [in] a statewide, top-down mandate for schools," she said. "That is going to force our schools to deficit spend and it could very well be a disaster when schools return in the fall."
House Republicans voting against the bill Monday noted that while it would prevent schools from cutting hours or pay for qualified employees, it would not stop layoffs. They also argued that districts should have more flexibility to bring workers back on a part-time basis if they are able.
It's not clear how many hourly school workers would be covered by the proposal. A Department of Education spokeswoman said the department does not have a full count of such employees across all school districts. Schools have been encouraged to reassign hourly employees to new roles, such as supporting child care for front-line workers and distributing meals to students in need.
Hortman said last week she has been told at least 500 school workers covered by the Education Department's guidance have been at least temporarily laid off. Advocates believe many school workers affected so far are assigned to fee-funded programs that have been canceled amid the crisis, cutting critical revenue streams.
Among them was Christina Aanenson, a Mound resident who has worked as a supervisor for before- and after-school programs at Hopkins schools for 16 years. In mid-April, she learned she was being temporarily laid off along with many of her colleagues.
The district is paying her health coverage, her unemployment benefits were quickly approved and her husband still has a full-time job.
But getting the layoff notice was "unnerving," she said, and it's hard not to worry about what happens if closures continue through the summer and fall. "It's not a comfortable situation for anybody," she said.