Bill to bring equity stalled in Legislature

Linnette Robinson has worked with special needs students at Berkeley High School for four years, after two years in the district’s elementary and junior high schools.

Yet every winter and summer, Robinson and tens of thousands of other classified employees across California scrape by during involuntary “vacations” the best they can. Because while other workers receive unemployment benefits during seasonal breaks, school staff do not.

“Most of us won’t see a paycheck from mid-June to the end of September,” Robinson said.

Relief was on the way, but at press time a bill by Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) that would have given staff access to unemployment benefits died in the Appropriations Committee.

“It hurts when I work this hard at a government job and still qualify for public assistance.”

— Linnette Robinson, Classroom aide, Berkeley High School

Bocanegra’s AB 1638 would have created a uniform standard to determine which unemployed employees are eligible for payments and eliminated the “reasonable assurance of employment” letters that school districts use to deny benefits to laid-off staff during breaks.

“This is a question of fairness,” Bocanegra said. “Virtually every other employee is allowed to apply for unemployment benefits when they are out of work. Why is this one group excluded?” 

Twenty-five years ago, the CFT won a landmark legal victory that provided unemployment benefits to many part-time temporary instructors. At that time, the State Court of Appeals agreed with the San Francisco Community College Federation of Teachers that a teaching assignment dependent on enrollment, funding or programming is not a “reasonable assurance” of a job.

The court’s 1989 decision, Cervisi v. California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, however, gave no relief to unemployed classified employees. Current law allows staff to file for retroactive payments if they were denied benefits at the start of summer, then laid off when classes resumed in September. But many districts fight employees who apply for unemployment insurance.

To right this wrong, the Council of Classified Employees called for legislation to expand eligibility in a resolution passed by CFT Convention in 2012.

Robinson — a mother of four who still has two teenagers at home and has gone on food stamps during summer layoffs — broke down in tears when describing the fight to make ends meet to a state senator.

“It hurts when I work this hard at a government job and still qualify for public assistance,” Robinson said.