The struggle of classified education workers

A janitor mops the floor in a new school building. (Photo: Siyanight, via Shutterstock)

If passion for children were enough to pay the rent, classified education workers would be some of the wealthiest people in the Golden State.

Instead, the hard-working teaching assistants, janitors, special education aides and cafeteria workers who keep our K-12 schools running barely scrape by during the school year, only to face hunger in the summer months when their paychecks stop.  AB 621, the Classified Workers Summer Bridge Fund, would offer workers a way to triple their savings to help get through the summer months, and provide the extra benefit of boosting our state economy.  This important legislation deserves Gov. Brown’s signature.

In the summer months, instead of collecting hugs and high-fives from the kids who call her “Mama Hamm,” Kat wades through dumpsters to collect cans and bottles to trade in for change.

The Economic Roundtable’s 2015 seminal report on the economic hardships of classified education workers, “Cruel Summer,” exposed the double bind faced by the educational support staff who are crucial to our children’s success.

On one hand, few employers are looking to hire short-term workers who will return to school in the fall. On the other, state law unfairly excludes them from collecting unemployment insurance like other seasonal workers.

Kat Hamm is a special education assistant in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  She loves the work she does to teach skills to eager little learners and says she wouldn’t change her career for anything.

But in the summer months, instead of collecting hugs and high-fives from the kids who call her “Mama Hamm,” Kat wades through dumpsters to collect cans and bottles to trade in for change.  It’s sweaty and smelly work. Kat often feels unsafe working alone at night – but alongside help from her children and occasionally qualifying for food stamps, it’s the only way Kat has found to avoid eviction as each summer drags on.

Statewide, 240,000 educational workers face similar struggles, and like so many issues facing workers with low incomes (classified employees average $20,000 annually), the hardships take a disproportionate toll on women and people of color.  Three-quarters of classified school workers are women.  One-third are sole income earners in their households.

One in three school workers are supporting children in their household, demonstrating how the policy of excluding classified employees from summer pay is at odds with California’s crucial need to better support students of color and disadvantaged communities. With more than half of classified workers Latino or African American, AB 621 represents an important step to ensure their children are not facing the extra academic hurdle of learning while hungry.

AB 621 takes the sting off the cruel summer by providing a two-to-one match for savings voluntarily set aside by workers during the school year.

Our research found excluding classified workers from unemployment pay comes at a cost to California’s economy of more than $187 million annually. On the other hand, every dollar invested in bridging the summer gap for these workers returns $1.22 in economic benefit for California.

With these economics in mind, Gov. Brown can sign AB 621 knowing it will deliver a sound return on investment for California.

Ed’s Note: Patrick Burns is senior researcher at The Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit urban research organization with the mission of conducting research and implementing programs that contribute to the sustainability of individuals and communities.

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