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CUSD daycare employees protest possible layoffs

CUSD daycare employees protest possible layoffs

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Despite scores of passionate public comments in favor of reversing course, Claremont Unified School District’s Board of Education voted unanimously last week to approve the issuance of 15 day layoff notices for 21 of its before- and after-school day care employees. Those notices would go out next week.

But all is not as it appears.

California Education Code statutes define employment processes for school employees. And bargaining units of the California School Employees Association (“CSEA”), of which the 21 Best Learning After School Time (“BLAST”) employees are members, negotiate collective bargaining agreements for layoffs. So the potential action, if it goes forward, wouldn’t be finalized for some time.

“What we did on Thursday was a step in that process,” said Kevin Ward, CUSD’s Assistant Superintendent, Human Resources. “It’s not a final decision. People get emotionally charged, and rightfully so, because they love these folks and we do too.”

CUSD is currently negotiating with CSEA regarding the possibility of instead furloughing the affected BLAST employees, which could potentially allow them to keep their health insurance benefits while they await post-COVID re-employment.

It is also trying to determine if the 21 classified employees would be eligible for state and/or federal unemployment benefits while on furlough, which is essentially a temporary leave of absence. Both groups’ respective legal counsels are now researching whether furlough is possible, legal or feasible.

“Because there’s no precedent,” said Mr. Ward. “Furlough isn’t a construct that’s used in public education in California. We’re really in uncharted waters right now and we’re trying to negotiate something. The meeting I had yesterday with CSEA was very productive, but we have a lot of work to do.”

Scores of letters in support of keeping BLAST employees on the job were read aloud at the August 20 school board meeting. The passion from parents, students and BLAST staff was palpable.

“No one, not CSEA or the district, wants our employees to go under,” Mr. Ward said. “They’re fantastic people, and they’re beloved, as you saw the outpouring of adulation in the comments last week. And we all feel the same way. All my three boys went through BLAST. They love their BLAST staff.”

The BLAST program is supported primarily through its fees. Since CUSD is not offering in-person classes at this time due to COVID concerns, before and after school day care is not being offered at the district’s seven elementary school sites and no money is coming in to fund the program.

If the layoffs go forward, the 21 employees will still report to their jobsites and continue working  for 60 days with full health insurance benefits and salary. “We’ll find work for them to do,” Mr. Ward said. “They’ll support the schools and staff. Then when or if they are laid off, their benefits would expire and they could apply for Covered California to bridge that gap.”

Though the potential layoff timeframe would not fall during Covered California’s open enrollment period, which ends August 31, losing one’s job due to the pandemic is a qualifying event that would allow for an exception to that rule.

The hope is that if layoffs proceed, state and federal unemployment benefits would cover the laid off employees’ living expenses, including health insurance, Mr. Ward said.

On the other hand, if the 21 employees are furloughed, they could potentially keep their benefits but be responsible for paying a percentage of their insurance premium. Normal annual CUSD employee health insurance contributions are about $1,450 for an individual, $2,700 for an individual and a spouse, and $3,950 for a family. Exactly what those potential contributions would be for a furloughed employee is yet another topic currently being negotiated between the district and CSEA.

“We are trying to figure out the best way to keep them on a paid status or a partially paid status as best we can, either through state and federal benefits or some other venue, because yes, we’re going to need them back,” Mr. Ward said.

Many of the affected BLAST employees have been with the district for several years, some of them more than a decade.

“They’re vested in their retirement plans and are [California Public Employees’ Retirement System] members,” Mr. Ward said. “It would hurt them tremendously too to have to walk away from that retirement package. We want to keep them, and they want to stay with us. And at the same time we want to them to be able to meet their financial obligations. We don’t want them to have to take other jobs and leave us hanging, nor the do employees either.”

If the possibility of furloughs does not bear fruit and the district goes forward with layoffs, the 15 day notices will go out and the 60 days on the job period will begin.

After that, the affected employees would be put on a 39 month re-employment list, and for the next 39 months they would have the first right of first refusal for those positions, said CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser.

“We anticipate that program resuming as soon as we bring students back on campus,” Mr. Elsasser said. “And then we will bring the staff back.”

If they’re officially laid off after the 60 day period passes, the 21 BLAST employees would then theoretically be subsisting on state and federal unemployment benefits, which can continue for up to 18 months.

“I’m pretty sure BLAST will be back long before that,” Mr. Ward said.

If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that all this could change in a moment.

“Again, we hope that the time it takes to go through this process will provide time for the LA County [COVID] metrics to improve, the district to negotiate with our associations to ensure student and staff safety, and for CUSD to be able to resume some in-person services again,” Mr. Elsasser said.

And that would mean CUSD would be in Phase 2 with students in classrooms, BLAST would be back in action, and all of this unprecedented toil would hopefully be behind all of us.

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