VEA in Overdrive to Protect ESP Benefits
September 29, 2021
September 29, 2021
If you were facing the loss of a paycheck for several months during the pandemic and your supervisor suggested you apply for unemployment benefits, why would you not do so? That’s the situation some VEA education support professional members, mostly bus drivers, found themselves in last summer. So, many of them applied for and received unemployment benefits, which helped smooth out a tough financial stretch.
Then some ESPs started getting letters from the Virginia Employment Commission telling them they weren’t really entitled to those benefits and demanding repayment.
“This was a terrible injustice,” says VEA President James J. Fedderman, “and one we couldn’t let stand.”
One recipient of a VEC letter was Christina Riblett, a school bus driver and Fairfax Education Association member, who told one media outlet that without the benefits, she and her husband, who had also been furloughed, wouldn’t have been able to pay their mortgage or buy groceries.
Riblett, who was told to repay about $7,000, also shared her story during an online town hall meeting VEA held to organize efforts to get justice for our unfairly treated members. “Why should one class of employees bear the burden of a lack of clear communication from our leadership team?” she asked.
Another bus driver, Education Association of Norfolk member Beverly Guynn, said at the meeting that she’d made 41 attempts to reach someone at VEC who could help her, to no avail.
The problem developed because federal unemployment rules prohibit school employees from receiving benefits between academic terms if they have reasonable assurance of resuming school employment in the next term. But COVID-19 made 2020 a year like no other: many school divisions provided summer school virtually, cancelling contracts with drivers to transport students. Drivers who never take summers off found themselves out of work. To further complicate matters, VEC didn’t use special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds for school employees, focusing only on unemployment insurance with school-specific rules.
VEA’s first move was to arrange a meeting between affected members and Virginia’s new Secretary of Labor, Megan Healy, to begin high-level discussions about finding a solution.
VEA Legal Services also stepped in, filing suit in Fairfax Circuit Court after VEC ruled that Riblett was not eligible for benefits. VEA argues that VEC has misinterpreted the law in two ways: One, by failing to recognize summer school is a regular academic term (students earn credits, special needs students continue required service, and students receive necessary remediation); and two, cancellations of school activities and plans for continued remote instruction meant bus drivers did not have a reasonable assurance they would work in the fall when they filed for the benefits. The proceedings in Fairfax are pending.
VEA also organized an email campaign on behalf of our ESP members, allowing supporters to target messages to key members of the General Assembly and to Secretary Healy. That advocacy has paid off, as VEC has now sent a letter to VEA headquarters, addressing all members and saying that VEC believes a significant percentage of ESPs “will be eligible for waiver.” It also explains that there is a waiver process available, but it must be done on a case-by-case basis because VEC cannot legally issue blanket waivers to groups of employees.
VEA members and staff will see this issue through to an equitable solution. If you’ve gotten a VEC letter, be sure to contact your local UniServ Director first. VEA can help members with the completion of waiver forms and procedures and may also be able to help members in eligibility appeals.