The Minnesota House recently debated spending $2.7 billion of the state’s $9.2 billion surplus to fill the unemployment insurance trust fund, rather than asking companies to pay higher tax rates to replenish it themselves, as normally required by law. The move, which would generate significant savings for businesses, has been a top priority for the Chamber of Commerce, Republicans and the governor this legislative session. But with corporate profits approaching a record high, many DFLs felt the money would be better spent addressing the labor shortages plaguing essential services, from education to long-term care. .
In an effort to address these challenges and ensure that the surplus also benefits those who have risked the most during the pandemic, the DFL leadership has suggested combining the unemployment insurance bailout with two worker-friendly policies: 1 billion dollars in bonus checks for frontline workers and an expansion of unemployment insurance. protections for hourly school employees who are currently excluded from the system.
Even though the cost of the bailout still outweighed the proposed investments in the workforce 2.5 to 1, the GOP vehemently objected. In the ugly debate In the aftermath, several opponents of the proposal voiced their contempt for rank-and-file workers, with particular animosity directed at school workers.
Debating the proposals in the House, Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, opposed the expansion of unemployment insurance on the grounds that hourly school employees, such as janitors and bus drivers, “do not work with our students”. And, before falsely claiming that other part-time workers are also excluded from the unemployment insurance system, Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, added that school workers know what they’re getting into and don’t therefore should not expect or receive additional protections.
The phrase “paying people not to work” was repeated many times throughout the debate, even though school workers applying for unemployment insurance would still have to meet eligibility criteria, including that actively looking for work. The assumption that school workers would choose to sit still instead of using benefits to ease the economic burden of periods between jobs is not only damaging, but somewhat unlikely, since unemployment insurance payments top out at 40 % revenues.
In perhaps the most telling comment of all, Deputy Minority Leader Ann Neu-Brindley, R-North Branch, cited her son’s part-time job at a bank as evidence that underpaid school workers should have no problem finding better jobs elsewhere.
In all of these comments, the tone was clear: public sector workers are lucky to have taxpayer-funded jobs and if they don’t like them, they should take a hike.
Unfortunately for all of us trying to live in a functional society, that’s precisely what’s happening: Statewide vacancies hit an all-time high of more than 205,000 in the spring of 2021, with many public sector occupations suffering disproportionately. Recent estimates point to 7,500 vacancies in education, more than 30,000 in health care and thousands more in social services and other essential professions.
The lack of staff was the first cause cited in the closure of 15 nursing homes since 2019. Stories of school bus lines canceled and high school students hired as janitors accumulate. It’s not hard to see why: According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s biannual job vacancy survey, vacancies for health care professionals and food preparers were two of the three lowest-paying jobs of all categories surveyed, at just $14.32 and $13.16 an hour, respectively.
The case of hourly school employees is particularly damning: already paid a modest salary, non-teaching school staff are laid off for three months each year without a safety net. Contrary to Scott’s assertion, this is not the case for seasonal workers in other fields, who are allowed to apply for unemployment benefits while they search for their next job. This lie has been repeated frequently throughout legislative policy debates, most recently at the conference committee on May 16, by Senate Labor Committee Chairman Eric Pratt. In fact, even school cafeteria workers who happen to be employed by private contractors are eligible for unemployment insurance, so the exclusion of public school employees is purely discriminatory.
These systems of prejudice and the degrading sentiments expressed on the floor of the House correspond to a biased Republican worldview in which corporations are the job creators and everything else is a waste. The problem is that in reality, companies do not create jobs; companies do.
Without health care, day care centers and schools, we would have no workers; without roads, public transport or public services, we would not have commerce. And, of course, it is the workers who produce the products and services that make businesses possible in the first place. Just ask families struggling to send their children to school or adults looking to care for aging parents.
The cost of extending unemployment insurance benefits to hourly workers would be $28 million a year according to the Institute for Economic Policy — slightly more than 1% of the $2.7 billion spent to fill the trust fund. At this rate, the initial allocation of $162 million requested would last for more than five years. It would be a small price to pay to make these essential occupations more manageable for the Minnesotans who occupy them. And with the surplus available, the state could easily afford to cover the cost on behalf of school districts indefinitely.
Bus drivers and cafeteria workers are valued in Minnesota communities. Walz and the DFL-controlled House should unite behind them and show how hostile Republicans have become to our indispensable public servants.
The GOP can continue to be the party of big business without being so detached from reality that they forget that we need people to care for the sick and the elderly and care for our children. Until they do, the workers’ crisis will get worse – and we will all suffer.