ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers are on their way to passing legislation ensuring public schools' hourly employees continue to get paid throughout the COVID-19 pandmic, but some question whether the move is necessary.
In a Wednesday, April 8, video conference hearing, members of the House Education Policy Committee passed by a 12-5 vote House File 4415, which would require school districts to pay hourly employees like bus drivers or janitors their hourly rates for days they were unable to work due to COVID-19-related school closures.
The bill comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected hundreds of Minnesotans and brought life as Minnesotans know it to a halt. Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday extended a statewide stay-at-home order until May 4, during which public schools are to teach students via distance learning.
Proponents say the bill is necessary because school hourly employees fall in a grey area where they may not necessarily be eligible for unemployment insurance if they lose hours due to school closures, and that school districts have budgeted for those hourly employee costs anyway. Opponents argued that the state shouldn't ensure income for workers of certain sectors and not others impacted by the pandemic.
"When people look around and they see one sector being treated differently than they’re being treated and they have no end in sight as to when they can even get back to work (...) it’s a tough situation for everybody," Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover said. "I just hope we can move forward and find an equitable solution. Everybody’s going to share in the pain. We all are, unfortunately."
Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis, retorted that employees in one sector will be no better off if school hourly employees are out of income. And with school hourly employees potentially ineligible for unemployment benefits, Rep. Michelle Christensen, D-Stillwater, said they should be able to at least have a safety net like retail or restaurant employees also out of work right now.
As of Wednesday, the state Department of Employment and Economic Development reports that over 367,000 Minnesotans have applied for unemployment benefits. State officials report that 1,154 Minnesotans as of Wednesday have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.
The bill now moves on to the House's Education Finance committee.