Disregard for essential workers will hurt us all | Opinion

Minnesota is facing a shortage of hourly school workers. Let’s stop treating them like second class citizens.

Parents and buses line up to pick up students at Lakeview Elementary School in Robbinsdale in October 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

On April 29, the Legislature agreed to spend $2.7 billion of the state’s $9.2 billion surplus to replenish the unemployment insurance trust fund rather than having businesses pay higher tax rates to refill it themselves, as normally required by law. The move, which will generate considerable savings for businesses following one of the most profitable years on record, has been a top priority for the Chamber of Commerce, Republicans, and the governor this legislative session.

In exchange, Democrats in the House sought $1 billion in hazard pay for essential workers — in health care, child care, food processing, retail, and other fields — who helped keep things moving during the pandemic. In the final deal, Republicans agreed to $500 million in COVID bonus checks, but refused to yield on another pro-worker DFL proposal aimed at addressing the worker shortage plaguing public schools: Unemployment insurance protections for hourly school employees who are currently excluded from the system. 

Even though the requested funding — $162 million spread over several years  — was only a small fraction of the UI replenishment cost, the GOP vociferously objected. In the ugly House floor debate that followed, several opponents of the proposal made their disregard for rank-and-file workers apparent, with special animosity directed at school workers.

Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, objected to the UI expansion on the grounds that hourly school employees like janitors and bus drivers, “aren’t working with our students.” And, before erroneously claiming that other part-time workers are also excluded from the UI system, Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, added that school workers knew what they were getting into and thus should not receive any additional protections. 

The phrase “paying people not to work” was repeated several times throughout the debate, even though school workers applying for UI would still need to meet eligibility requirements, including that they be actively looking for work. The assumption that school workers would opt to sit around instead of using the benefits to ease the economic burden of periods between jobs is both prejudiced and somewhat unlikely, since UI payments cap out at 40% of earnings. 

In perhaps the most telling comment of all, Assistant Minority Leader Ann Neu-Brindley, R-North Branch, cited her son’s part-time bank job as evidence that underpaid school workers should have no problem finding better jobs elsewhere. 

In all of these comments, the undertone was clear: Public sector workers are lucky to have taxpayer-funded jobs and if they don’t like them, they should take a hike. 

Unfortunately for all of us trying to live in a functional society, that’s precisely what’s happening: Statewide job vacancies reached an all-time high of more than 205,000 in the spring of 2021, with many public sector professions suffering disproportionately. Recent estimates report 7,500 job vacancies in educational instruction, more than 30,000 in health care, and thousands more in social services, and other essential professions. 

Staff shortage was the top cause cited in the closure of 15 nursing homes since 2019. Stories of canceled school bus routes and high schoolers hired as janitors are piling up. It’s not hard to understand why: According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s semi-annual job vacancy survey, openings for health support professionals and food preparation workers were two of the three lowest-paying jobs of any category surveyed at just $14.32 and $13.16 per hour, respectively. 

The case of hourly school employees is particularly damning: Already paid a modest wage, hourly school staff, who are more likely to be women or people of color, are laid off for three months every year with no safety net. Contrary to Scott’s claim, this is not the case for seasonal workers in male-dominated fields like construction, who are allowed to apply for unemployment benefits while they search for their next job. This falsehood in particular has been repeated frequently throughout legislative debates on the policy, most recently during a conference committee hearing on May 16, by Senate Workforce Committee Chair Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake. In fact, even school cafeteria workers who happen to be employed by private contractors are eligible for UI, so the carve out for public school employees is purely discriminatory. 

These prejudiced systems and the demeaning sentiments expressed on the House floor match a skewed Republican worldview in which businesses are the job creators and everything else is waste. The problem is that, in reality, businesses don’t create jobs; societies do. 

Without health care, child care, and schools, we’d have no workers at all; without roads, transit or utilities, we’d have no commerce. And, of course, it’s workers that produce the products and services that make businesses possible to begin with. Just ask families struggling to get their kids to school or adults seeking care for their elderly parents.

The cost of extending UI benefits to hourly workers would be $28 million per year according to the Economic Policy Institute—a little over 1% of the $2.7 billion spent to refill the trust fund. At that rate, the $162 million upfront allocation requested would last more than five years. It would be a small price to pay to make these essential occupations more manageable for the Minnesotans who fill them. And with the surplus on hand, the state could easily afford to cover the cost on behalf of school districts indefinitely.

Bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and education support professionals are beloved in communities across Minnesota. Walz and the DFL-controlled House should prioritize them in final negotiations and show how hostile Republicans are to our indispensable public servants. 

The GOP can continue to be the party of big business without coming so unmoored from reality that they forget we need people to care for the sick and elderly and look after our kids. Until they do, the worker crisis will get worse — and we will all suffer as a result.

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Eric Harris Bernstein
Eric Harris Bernstein

Eric Bernstein is a policy analyst focused on state tax and budgetary policy. Since the summer of 2020, he has been policy director for We Make Minnesota — a coalition of labor and community groups organizing to raise state revenue for investment in health care, education, racial equity, sustainable environmental stewardship and other public priorities.