State unemployment insurance officials delivered some good news for Hawaii’s struggling public school substitute teachers — or for most of them, at least.

Last week, the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations ruled that the state’s more than 4,700 substitute teachers don’t have a “reasonable assurance” of work in the coming school year, given all the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The ruling makes them eligible to continue receiving unemployment insurance payments through the summer. The Department of Education, which has to cover those unemployment insurance payments, says it won’t appeal DLIR’s blanket decision favoring the substitutes and other school employees who are typically on break during the summer.

But the labor department also reports that DOE has listed more than 300 of its substitutes and other employees as either having denied available work during the summer or leaving voluntarily. 

Social distanced classroom with desks spaced apart at Kaneohe Elementary School summer school during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Claims examiners now have to sort out whether a few hundred subs were wrongly denied unemployment insurance for the summer. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Claims examiners will now have to review each of those cases individually, akin to the state’s “Level 3” unemployment claims that are the most difficult and take the longest to resolve, said Bill Kunstman, a DLIR spokesman.

When asked why so many workers who are typically on break during the summer are being listed as denying work during that time, the DOE said in an email that its employees may be offered work during the summer and decline offers.

According to Kunstman, most private sector employees pay contributions on behalf of their workers ahead of time, prior to any job loss. The nonprofit and public sectors don’t pay those up-front contributions, however.

They’re on the hook to cover those costs after their employees get laid off, according to Kunstman. 

“It does incentivize such employers to limit the amount of employees getting benefits because they’re paying out of pocket,” he said last week.

Officials at the individual school campuses are classifying those more than 300 substitutes and employees as not accepting summer work, Kunstman added Tuesday.

While DOE won’t appeal the blanket decision, it will review the details on individual unemployment claims details to consider appeals on a case-by-case basis, according to DOE spokesman Drew Henmi.

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

However, the pandemic has substitutes, like thousands of other workers, struggling to make ends meet. Numerous substitutes have been reporting problems with their UI payments in recent weeks.

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