Paula Herbart: Legislature must act so school employees get paid during COVID-19 shutdown

Image by Christine Jessel Grider from Pixabay

Michigan lawmakers went home Tuesday night without acting ensuring all school employees get paid during this statewide school closure caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, despite bipartisan support and joint appeals from varied education organizations and educators across the state.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) adjourned that chamber late Tuesday night until March 25 without any action on the issue.

Leaders from both the labor and management sides of the education community had worked together to find a legislative solution to ensure all school employees continue to be paid during the crisis, as well as that the time off doesn’t count against state days and hours requirements for school districts. These issues are inextricably linked, and action on both would have provided some certainty for school leaders and employees in these uncertain times.

After the Senate adjourned, a joint statement was issued by Michigan Education Association (MEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Michigan, Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators (MASA) and Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), saying: “We had significant, bipartisan support for our approach developed over days of conversations with lawmakers — something we greatly appreciate. We believe the majority of legislators want to deliver whatever level of certainty they can to students, parents, school employees and district leaders.”

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The joint statement called for Shirkey to reconvene as soon as possible to address these issues for school employees and districts: “Leaving a bipartisan solution to an immediate problem on the table during a time of crisis is not in anyone’s best interests.”

Let me be more direct. To Sen. Shirkey and anyone else involved in allowing this issue to linger: Educators in our state deserve nothing less than immediate action, especially given the efforts undertaken over the past week. Teachers are working hard to continue engaging students in learning however possible. And our school support staff — usually lower-wage, hourly workers — are ensuring meals are getting to students with the greatest needs and that our facilities are clean and safe.

More than 10,000 letters appealing for the Legislature to act have gone to legislators from MEA members in just 24 hours. We continue to urge school employees, as well as parents and community members, to contact their legislators and urge them to return to Lansing and vote.

We’ve heard from legislative allies — from both parties — that they’re ready to do so, just as they were Tuesday. 

Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), an educator elected in 2018, condemned the lack of action on social media, writing: “Despite a marathon MI senate session yesterday, there was no action on providing certainty around pay and days/hours requirements for all school employees due to the shutdown. Adjourning without action is not acceptable.” 

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Another educator-turned-legislator, Rep. Sheryl Kennedy (D-Davison), was even more blunt in her criticism: “I am furious right now. I came to Lansing to pass the K-12 Supplemental funding and coronavirus legislation this morning. But Sen. Shirkey walked away from public schools AGAIN! In their greatest time of need, when schools are literally feeding children from the backs of school buses, Shirkey refused to support hourly workers and allow the Governor to excuse days off.”

From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank my fellow school employees — and everyone else engaged in public service at this difficult time — for what you’re doing to help our students and our communities. 

We will continue to fight for what’s right for school employees, districts and the students they serve — including calling on Sen. Shirkey and his colleagues to return to Lansing and act without delay.