For the past seven years, Mari Leaver has worked as a substitute teacher in Riverview and Seattle schools.
She has a master’s degree and full endorsement to teach in special education classrooms. But, because of ongoing health problems, the 64-year-old felt a full-time position was untenable.
Now, as every school in Washington shutters for the next six weeks to slow the spread of coronavirus, Leaver will join thousands of hourly and part-time workers across the state wondering if they’ll be out of a paycheck for more than a month — or longer.
“I have no income. I cannot get Medicare or Social Security yet, without a considerable reduction in full benefits,” Leaver said.
“I am looking at doing child care. That’s about it for me,” she added. “This is how people lose everything: mental, physical and emotional health … When, and if, we recover, will we return to a new norm? I can’t say I will.”
Leaver is one example of the many hourly or part-time workers across the state — including bus drivers, custodians, paraeducators and substitute teachers — who have little certainty about their pay and benefits during the school closures that state leaders hinted could last through fall.
On Thursday, when Gov. Jay Inslee and state schools chief Chris Reykdal announced the order to close all public and private schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties until at least April 24, neither official knew how hourly workers would be paid.
“Our hourly workers are a challenge. I want to be very clear about that,” Reykdal said in a news conference Thursday. “That is a particular group that we don’t have a clear answer for right now.” He didn’t have much more to say Friday, when they expanded the closure statewide, but he did suggest paraeducators could play a role in distributing food.
As of Friday, a spokesman with the state’s Employment Security Department (ESD) said individuals — provided they’re actually laid off from their job — typically can qualify for unemployment benefits if they worked 680 hours or more in the previous year, even if that’s with multiple employers. Workers, however, must wait a week from the date of unemployment to start receiving those benefits.
“Everybody’s individual facts and circumstances are unique,” said Nick Demerice, public affairs director for the ESD. “We really encourage people to get on our website (esd.wa.gov/unemployment) and go through the process of applying. It’s really all over the map.”
The department also recently released emergency rules to make it easier for workers to receive unemployment benefits “if an employer needs to shut down operations temporarily because a worker becomes sick and other workers need to be isolated or quarantined as a result of COVID-19.”
But for school staff, the circumstances get trickier: Demerice noted that it remains unclear if districts, when they officially close, will formally lay off workers or request their placement on what’s known as “standby,” meaning they can receive unemployment benefits immediately without having to look for a new job.
“Unfortunately it depends — and, again, I hate that as an answer — on everybody’s individual circumstances,” Demerice said.
Spokespeople in several King County school districts — including Auburn, Bellevue, Federal Way, Kent and Seattle — were not immediately available Friday for comment on how they would handle the paychecks or potential layoffs of hourly and part-time workers.
For Highline Public Schools, just south of Seattle, chief communications officer Catherine Carbone Rogers said the district did cancel all its substitutes.
“We are continuing to pay hourly and part-time workers as if their regular schedule were maintained,” she said in an email.
This often overlooked group of school staff isn’t entirely without a safety net, however. For the first time this year, the state extended full coverage to any district employee who works at least 630 hours a year, or about 3.5 hours a day. And as of 2018, thanks to voter approval of Initiative 1433, all employers in Washington must provide paid sick leave to their employees.
In Seattle, substitutes previously couldn’t use sick leave on snow days. But according to the local substitutes union, the district has made an exception for the coronavirus-related closures.
That will help one Seattle substitute draw less money from her savings account and last through six weeks of no work. As for unemployment benefits, “even if I don’t need that now … I’m pretty sure I’ll want it at some point if this goes longer,” said the substitute, who asked to remain anonymous as she considers looking for employment elsewhere.
On Thursday, a day after the Seattle superintendent announced a districtwide closure, the substitute drove to the most recent school where she had worked and turned in what could be her last time sheet for months or more.
“I cried in the main office parking lot because of the uncertainty and the stress that this whole situation brings,” she said.
“Six weeks,” she added. “I can manage for six weeks. But beyond that is when I feel more anxiety because of all the unknowns.”