Spring Colors Come in Blue, Yellow, Green, and ...Pink
By Dave Arnold
What a contrast in moods between Mother Nature and school districts. I love this time of year when flowers bloom, trees bud, grass greens. On one hand, I’m enthralled by the rejuvenating power of spring. On the other hand, it is pink slip season. Talk of layoffs is anything but rejuvenating. At this time of year, many school employees will receive reduction in force (RIF) notices. Mixed in with blue skies and red wild flowersSpring will be the depressing pink of layoff notices.
Many school officials go through this annual drill of issuing layoff notices. Just like Mother Nature, school districts have their own laws of survival. Since district officials are unsure of student enrollment numbers and funding for the upcoming school year, out go pink slips. The more a school is financially stricken the greater the number of RIFs.
Downsizing may be a necessary part of school life in order to achieve a realistic working budget. But it doesn’t mean education support professionals (ESPs) and others need to accept it. Yes, receiving a pink slip can dampen our spring spirit. But it doesn’t have to spoil our important work helping schools run and students achieve. If you receive a layoff notice or learn you are going to receive one, see the Job Layoff Checklist presented by NEA Member Benefits. There’s good advice there that will help you get through a trying time.
Most states have RIF laws concerning ESPs, teachers and other educators. But laws for school employee groups are not the same. In my state of Illinois, for example, teachers receive at least a 90-day notice before being “RIF-ed” while ESPs may, in most cases, receive only a 30-day notice. Some states have laws concerning the RIF of teachers, but none pertaining to ESPs. However, for those of us who work in bargaining states, notification can be bargained into the contract. Some ESP bargaining units have gained contract language requiring a 90-day notice.
Whatever the notification time, downsizing usually goes by seniority. Employees with the least amount of seniority are usually the first to be downsized. But “first in, first out” is not as simple to determine as it sounds. A bargaining unit must determine whether the seniority scale for the RIF of an employee would fall within a specific ESP classification, or within that of the entire ESP unit. As an example, suppose a paraeducator being considered for layoff has more seniority than a custodian in that local. Leaders in that local should have been determined beforehand whether one group of ESPs, such as that paraeducator, would have the right to bump an ESP from another job category who has less seniority, like the custodian, provided the paraeducator is equally qualified for the job.
In some ESP contracts, seniority is restricted to a person’s own classification or job category. NEA has developed a system of nine ESP job groups to help people understand and compare the diverse roles that ESPs play at school. For more information about job categories, see the NEA ESP homepage.
Seniority can be bargained into the contract. If it isn’t, then considerations involving seniority need to be determined before layoffs go into effect. Waiting until the reduction takes place to decide who has seniority confuses the decision-making process while adding to the emotional stress of those holding pink slips.
One often overlooked aspect of being RIF-ed is that educators can file for unemployment compensation benefits once they have completed their last day of employment for the school year. If a paraeducator is RIF-ed and their last day of work is May 31, even though they are always off during June, July, and August they can file for unemployment once they have completed that last day of work on May 31. The law states they have received notice that they may not be called back to work the following school year and therefore are legally unemployed even though they are normally off for those summer months.
What irritates me the most about RIF is this: those who are RIF-ed usually have no seniority and are at the bottom of the pay scale. It would seem to me that if school boards were truly sincere about cutting costs, they would also consider those at the top of the district pay scale. But how many administrators are going to RIF themselves, even if they have no seniority? I say to them: step down from your high horse chairs and smell the roses. It’s spring and we’re all in this together.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.
Dave Arnold: This school custodian and former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year is a published poet. But most Association members know him best from the editorials -- Dave's View --