Before COVID-19, Laura Cole’s services on Maui were in high demand. Hardly a day passed during her five years as a substitute teacher without a classroom to fill, she said.

She would make ends meet working at a private summer camp when school was on summer break.

After the pandemic hit and schools sent students home, Cole applied for unemployment insurance. Her UI payments finally started flowing in May, she said. A month later, they abruptly stopped for her and thousands of other substitute teachers across Hawaii.

“I can’t budget. I haven’t been able to contribute to rent,” Cole said last week.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school student raises her hand in class during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
A student at Kaneohe Elementary School raises her hand in class during summer school amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Hawaii’s substitute teachers find themselves in limbo over whether they’re eligible to collect unemployment insurance through the summer. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020


She and her boyfriend are looking for a cheaper place to live, she said. She’s held off on the car repairs she’ll need if substitute teacher work resumes in the fall. She’s considered canceling her phone to help save costs.

Further, Cole says she’s considering going back to school herself — to pursue another career.

Substitute teachers play an outsized role in Hawaii, where many of them help fill the shortfall of roughly 1,000 full-time public school teachers.

Currently, however, most of the state’s more than 4,700 public school substitutes find themselves stuck in a UI limbo as state labor officials try to determine if the pandemic’s unusual circumstances entitle them to payments not only during the school year but also over the summer.

The decision hinges on whether the substitute teachers have a “reasonable assurance” of securing work in the coming school year, officials say.

Normally, by statute, most substitutes aren’t eligible for such UI payments during summer break because they have that reasonable assurance to return in the fall.

But questions remain about what the coming school year will look like as COVID-19 persists.

Under a plan the Department of Education unveiled last week, it will largely fall to the 257 school campuses to decide how much time students will spend in the classroom versus remote sessions online.

Meanwhile, the seasonal jobs that Cole and other local substitutes usually rely on to get by aren’t available this summer. It can also be hard to qualify for unemployment insurance for previous time logged on such jobs, officials say.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot of people who are falling through the cracks” with the way the country’s unemployment insurance system works, said Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger. “This COVID crisis doesn’t fit that model.”

“This is another new segment of possibly thousands of people who are losing out,” Wildberger said of the substitute teachers.

Payments Stopped With Little Warning

Many of those teachers say they were caught by surprise when their UI payments stopped in June because neither the DOE nor the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations warned them.

Instead, they learned through their unemployment claims status page with notes such as “Failure To Accept All Work Available” and “Pending Decision Due To Wages from an Educational Institution.”

They’ve been watching closely ever since to see what DLIR will do.

Both DLIR and DOE have been weighing the matter, said Wildberger and her colleague in the House, Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, who chairs the chamber’s Committee on Labor and Public Employment.

“They know it’s affecting a lot of people,” Johanson said last week of DLIR.

When asked via email about the interagency discussions, DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers simply said the final decision on the substitutes rests with DLIR. Some of the substitutes, including Maui resident Sierra Knight, say they believe the DOE would prefer they not get the additional coverage in order to avoid an additional expense.

Wildberger similarly noted that the DOE is examining the matter because it would have to pay for it. DOE spokesman Drew Henmi said the agency “may appeal any UI decision that is made” when asked whether it would challenge a favorable outcome for the substitute teachers.

A DLIR decision could come as early as Wednesday, spokesman Bill Kunstman said.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school teacher Jacque Yoshizumia helps a student during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Kaneohe Elementary School summer school teacher Jacque Yoshizumia helps a student. Hawaii’s public schools depend on substitutes to help deal with a statewide teacher shortage. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

In the meantime, any substitutes who were receiving UI benefits from other jobs have seen all of their payments cut off, not just those from their teaching work.

“They’re just lumping us all into one group and saying ‘no,’” said Nalani Koch, a flight attendant who occasionally works as a substitute. Koch has two college-age daughters who are still dependents, and she said that she deferred mortgage payments for three months to help deal with her reduced hours as a flight attendant.

It took her a while to finally get UI payments for April and May, she said. Now, her payments are frozen, pending the DLIR decision. Koch said this month she has to resume her mortgage payments — including the amount she deferred.

“I was hardly making money from subbing,” Koch said. “It’s crazy that it’s affecting my whole situation.”

Johanson, the House labor chair, has been helping DLIR process UI claims. The problem, he said, is that each claim is like its own puzzle — and you need all of the pieces in order to calculate what a claimant is owed.

As they await DLIR’s decision, those claimants with substitute teacher income are stuck without all of their puzzle pieces.

“While it makes sense from a UI perspective, the whole world is getting this sad crash course in understanding UI in a way we never thought we had to,” Johanson said.

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