Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, California Assemblymember 54th District

Patrick Burns, Senior Researcher at the Economic Roundtable

When schools across the Golden State close for summer vacation in a few weeks, happy children will pour out of classrooms into the sun for the warm months. However for the school bus drivers, lunch ladies, custodians and teaching assistants who work to maintain a safe and clean environment summer is a cruel time with no paycheck.

Assembly Bill 399, the Education Workers Summer Relief Act, would give classified school employees access to unemployment benefits when they need them.

Makebia Flanagan, a school bus driver for the Los Angeles Unified School District, has learned just how hard the summer months can be.

Makebia first dreamed of her career when she was a teenager at Crenshaw High School. She loves working with kids and she works with students to teach them respect on her bus. “You ride every day with each other,” she tells them. She’s a school bus driver but she’s also a coach and a teacher and a school psychologist, too.

Unfortunately during the summer, Makebia must support five kids attending Los Angeles schools without a paycheck. As each summer approaches, she starts applying for jobs—airport shuttle driver, McDonalds—and every year they tell her they’re not interested in someone who can only work for two months. So every year, she applies for unemployment insurance and every year, she’s denied.

That’s because Makebia—and more than 284,000 teaching assistants, nurses’ aides, office secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others keeping California’s schools running—are the only seasonal workers in California who are denied the opportunity to receive unemployment insurance benefits when work is not available. Hollywood writers, sports stadium employees, farm workers, retail employees and other seasonal employees are all eligible for unemployment benefits.

During her cruel summer, Makebia makes sure her kids think everything is just fine: “They never know we’re struggling.” They don’t know that they moved from their home of 12 years because the landlady finally got tired of Makebia getting behind on rent. They don’t know that sometimes the family is on public assistance.

Most classified school employees are low-wage workers who struggle to support their families even during the school year. Without a paycheck in the summer months, many go into debt to pay for food, housing and health care, and fall deeper into poverty. Like Makebia, three out of four classified workers in public school districts are women; one out of three is a parent of children in our schools. One out of three is also the sole breadwinner for his or her family.

Excluding school employees from our workforce safety net does more than keep thousands in poverty: it hurts our communities and our economy. Roughly $153.1 million in benefits could be paid to classified education employees who go without an income over the summer months, money that would boost our state’s economy and reduce the dollars paid in public assistance.

Local businesses would benefit from $187.3 million in added sales and would create over 1,100 jobs at retail and grocery stores, repair shops and other small businesses that drive the economy. State and local governments would receive a $12.1 million boost in tax revenues.

Compensating the working people who contribute their passion, commitment and hard work to our children is an investment in California’s future.  When our schools are fully staffed, when low-income students have access to summer school that closes the achievement gap, and when school workers have access to unemployment benefits, both kids and workers have an opportunity to be a part of a stronger economy.

AB 399 is one step to enable school employees to make their way solidly into the middle class, instead of enduring summer after summer of financial crisis from which they never completely recover. Let’s make sure Makebia and her kids have a cool summer instead of a cruel one.

Patrick Burns is a Senior Researcher at the Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles-based, non-profit public policy research organization. Sebastian Ridley-Thomas is a California Assemblymember representing the 54th District who has introduced legislation to provide access to summer unemployment insurance benefits for classified school employees, Assembly Bill 399.