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Substitute teachers’ unemployment benefits in limbo in Hawaii

When public schools shut down in Hawaii in March, substitute teachers were able to file for unemployment insurance, but that money stopped flowing in June.

“It’s affecting thousands of us,” said Sierra Knight, who lives in Kula, Maui, and has been a substitute teacher for five years. “It’s been five weeks that no one has been paid. Every one of our claims is on ‘pending’ status.”

Under federal and state law, such educational workers normally aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits over the summer if they have a “reasonable assurance” they will return to work in the next academic year.

“So the question is, what’s a reasonable assurance?” Bill Kunstman, spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said today. “In the COVID-19 situation, that may change.”

“The Unemployment Insurance Division is in the process of making a sort of blanket determination for all of those personnel,” he said. “I’m expecting to know sometime early this week.”

The Department of Education employs about 4,700 substitute teachers. Given the teacher shortage, they play a vital role across the islands.

“We have no voice in any decision and we’re basically what’s keeping the school system afloat,” said Knight, who substitutes at Pukalani and Kula elementary schools.

During the regular academic year, casual hires including substitute teachers, part-time teachers and para-professionals who were laid off due to the coronavirus closures were eligible for the expanded unemployment insurance that was part of the CARES Act.

Hawaii’s unemployment weekly benefit tops out at $648, and employees also qualified for the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation supplement of $600 per week, commonly known as the “plus-up.”

Knight said she had to wait two months for her initial unemployment claim to be paid and she was shocked when the funds were cut off June 1 with no explanation. She said several other states have opted to extend unemployment benefits to substitute teachers this summer.

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