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When A Hurricane Closes Schools, No Work Means No Pay For Thousands of Hourly Workers

Jessica Bakeman
Geancarlo Rodriguez, shown here in his Hialeah home, is a part-time clerical assistant at Hialeah Gardens High School. He didn't get paid when schools closed for seven days because of Hurricane Irma and says the district's payroll policy is unfair.

For Geancarlo Rodriguez, Hurricane Irma was a little bit like summer.

Rodriguez has worked as a clerical assistant at Hialeah Gardens High School for nine years, answering phones and greeting visitors for about 25 hours a week. But when his school closed for seven days because of the September storm, he didn’t get paid.

So the 26-year-old managed the same way he does for summer breaks — by relying on a small savings he tries to build up throughout the school year and the help he gets from the government because of his disability. He is paralyzed from the waist down, has use of only one arm and utilizes a wheelchair.

“For part-timers, they could have done at least something to be fair,” said Rodriguez, who, despite working a regular schedule, is considered an hourly employee of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and is therefore not allowed to get paid when he doesn’t work.

“I did not get recognized for all those days that I was out. But I went back to work, and I just had to keep looking forward and not look back,” he said.

For many of the lowest-paid employees at some of Florida’s largest school districts, Hurricane Irma was a direct financial hit. Rodriguez is one of more than 8,000 hourly public school employees throughout South Florida who lost the opportunity to earn their regular wages during emergency closures leading up to and following the storm.

The employees include clerical, facilities and food service workers, bus drivers, teachers’ aides, adult education teachers, coaches, after-school counselors, behavior technicians, job coaches, detention instructors and community liaisons.

During the breaks, which stretched from seven to as many as 18 days in some South Florida schools, another nearly 12,000 substitute teachers also missed out on potential wages.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Residents take shelter in Broward County's Falcon Cove Middle School during Hurricane Irma in September.

In the Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe County school districts, full-time and permanent part-time employees were paid normally throughout the storm closure. For the most part, these employees were protected by collective bargaining contracts negotiated by unions or similar entities. Also, many employees got additional pay, in some cases earning overtime, for hosting the public in school buildings that doubled as hurricane shelters.

Learning from the experience of Irma, the Miami-Dade district is pursuing a strategy to mitigate hourly employees' immediate economic hardships. And some South Florida district leaders are considering changing their payroll policies to allow for some of these workers to get paid during future storms.

Miami-Dade — the largest school district in Florida and fourth-largest in the country — limits how much temporary employees can work to 25 hours a week, with a few exceptions. District administrators plan to lift that cap for one pay period some time in the near future. Principals will be allowed to schedule employees for additional hours so they can earn some of the pay they weren’t able to during the storm.

“There absolutely is sympathy for wages lost for any of our employees, but, in particular, the most vulnerable,” said Ron Steiger, the district’s chief financial officer, who helped engineer the short-term fix.

During its seven-day closure for Irma in early September, the district provided its 33,000 full-time employees and about 1,700 permanent part-time employees their regular paychecks. About 450 hourly employees were called in to work, so they received some wages.

But the district estimates there were about 3,000 hourly employees who couldn’t work, so they lost pay. Some of those people work pretty regular schedules, like Rodriguez, while others work only a few hours here and there.

The district’s payroll policy explicitly states that when school district buildings are closed for natural disasters, the superintendent may grant “discretionary emergency leave with or without pay …. to full-time school board employees who were prevented from reporting to work.”

However, the policy directs administrators to “report only actual time worked” for hourly part-time employees, substitute teachers and paraprofessionals. “Permanent part-time” employees — mostly cafeteria workers — are excluded, because of their union protections.

Steiger said it would be financially irresponsible to pay employees for work they didn’t do if the district is not contractually obligated to do so, like it is in the case of full-time employees.

But, regarding the plan to allow hourly employees to make up some of the work they missed, he said: “Ensuring that employees can get made whole while simultaneously not being wasteful at all with public dollars is really important, which is why we found this compromise.”

Meanwhile, school board members said they’re considering how they might alter payroll policies to help hourly employees during future emergencies.

Credit Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Perla Tabares Hantman, chair of the Miami-Dade County School Board, said she is considering proposing changes to the district's policy that prevents paying hourly employees for work they didn't do in light of the challenges faced by part-time workers after Hurricane Irma.

“If there’s anything that we can do to change it, I certainly would be happy to bring it to the board,” Miami-Dade County School Board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman said. “I’m always interested in trying to create policy … to remunerate … our workers, especially the people who don’t get well paid.”

Another board member, Steve Gallon III, said he also hoped to explore changes to the Miami-Dade district’s payroll policy. He has already taken an interest in the economic impact of the hurricane: In October, he successfully proposed a new rule requiring the district to plan for providing meals to kids during emergency closures.

“Many of our families, many of our community members … are living paycheck to paycheck. And when you have a situation where paychecks are totally eliminated from a household, it can have some devastating consequences on not only the adults but … more importantly, the children,” said Gallon, who represents Miami Gardens and Opa-locka on the board.

“So, absolutely, I am committed to exploring this matter further,” he said.

The School District of Palm Beach County employs about 19,000 full-time and 3,000 part-time people, all of whom got paid as usual during the seven-day closure. But about 2,600 temporary workers didn’t get paid.

In that district, the general payroll policy (3.92) states that temporary employees work only “when work is available,” and they “have no future expectation of work." However, a separate emergency policy (3.805) states: “The superintendent will determine the number of days paid, if any, for non-essential employees who are directed to not report to work.”

Given that they are called in intermittently based on need, it’s hard to predict how much they would have worked had schools been open, Superintendent Robert Avossa said, explaining why hourly workers in his district didn’t get paid during the storm.

He said he is “reviewing” the district’s payroll decision. He didn’t specify what might change in the future.

“We’re looking at that,” he said. “We look at and review everything after an incident.”

Broward County Public Schools paid about 25,000 full-time and 2,000 part-time employees when its schools were closed for seven days. Another 2,500 hourly people weren’t able to work.

(The district took almost two months to produce the payroll records and charged WLRN more than $250 for them, while the Miami-Dade and Palm Beach districts provided the information at no cost.)

The district’s payroll policy states that temporary employees are not eligible for paid holidays. However, it goes on: “If the district is affected by an emergency such as a hurricane or any other natural disaster and is closed for business, emergency payment procedures may supersede standard procedures.”

Per the emergency policy, “employees are compensated for emergencies based upon their bargaining unit agreement in effect at the time of the emergency.”

There is apparently some discretion beyond what is included in union contracts. For example, principals are not organized in a collective bargaining unit, and they were paid during the closure, according to a spokeswoman for the district.

In a statement, Chief Public Information Officer Tracy Clark said “the district’s senior leadership team makes the determination” about which employees to pay when schools are closed, based on “past practice … for previous hurricane events” and collective bargaining agreements.

Judith Marte, the district’s chief financial officer, said temporary employees “are hired under the condition that they only get paid when they report to duty.”

The Broward district's superintendent, Robert Runcie, declined multiple requests for interviews, as did all nine members of the school board. One board member, Rosalind Osgood, emailed a statement saying she supports Runcie’s payroll decisions and “hopes that everyone impacted by Hurricane Irma weathered the storm in good health.”

Credit Charles Trainor Jr. / Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in the Florida Keys in early September, closed schools there for up to 18 days.

In Monroe County — the Florida Keys — school was out for much longer, up to 18 days in some cases.

The school board there granted all 1,200 full- and part-time employees eight days of paid administrative leave because that’s how long the county was under mandatory evacuation. If workers missed additional days, they were paid anyway, but they’re being expected to make up the time or use vacation.

Employees who “owe” the district time they didn’t work have been asked to consider coming in on days when they were scheduled to be off, Superintendent Mark Porter said. Those included Veteran’s Day and a weeklong Thanksgiving break in November, as well as President’s Day, which is coming up in February.

Hourly employees who didn’t work were not paid. The district did not provide a number of how many temporary workers are on the books, but it is surely only a fraction of the workforces at its much-larger neighboring districts.

Some hourly maintenance workers returned earlier than they were required to — before residents were even allowed back — in order to help schools get ready to re-open in the hard-hit Keys. They got paid a higher hourly rate for that work in recognition of their sacrifice, Porter said.

“They came in to help us under very difficult circumstances, because they had to come back without their families being allowed to come back with them,” he said.

Throughout the region, thousands of substitute teachers lost the opportunity to work during the Irma closures.

Miami-Dade employs about 4,300 subs, and usually about a third of them work during a given pay period. In Broward, there are nearly 5,000 subs, and in Palm Beach County, about 2,600. Monroe has 160 substitute teachers now, but a spokeswoman said the number was likely lower during Irma because the district recruited heavily after the storm.

Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of Miami-Dade’s teachers’ union, said she heard from some substitutes who were struggling.

“If … you were planning on substituting those days because somebody was going to be out, but there was nobody out because there was no school, then you didn't work that day,” she said. “You know, it’s just tough.”

School workers who lost pay — even those who aren't members of United Teachers of Dade — called the union for help.

Hernandez-Mats said union leaders offered what they could: gift cards for groceries and gas.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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