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Hourly school workers — from elementary school bus drivers to college food service workers to professionals who assist in classrooms — can now qualify for unemployment insurance between academic terms.

The change to Minnesota law, the first of its kind in the nation, took effect as schools are headed into summer break.

"It took us until 2023 to get the same financial safety net that construction workers and other seasonal workers have had for decades. It's about time," said Catina Taylor, who has been a Minneapolis Public Schools education support professional for 24 years.

She was among a group of workers and legislators celebrating the shift at a news conference this week on the University of Minnesota campus. They said the ability to access unemployment insurance will keep more people in critical school jobs amid a worker shortage.

If workers are unemployed or their hours are significantly reduced during the summer, they can receive partial pay through the state's unemployment insurance program. They must meet the usual benefit eligibility requirements, including actively seeking employment. Those who already have sufficient hours through a second or third job wouldn't qualify.

The change could affect around 60,000 workers in K-12 schools and 5,000 people at higher education institutions, said bill sponsor Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis. But how many people apply remains to be seen, she said, and the state will monitor this year's numbers.

"We are ending an 80-year exclusion of hourly school workers from our unemployment system," Greenman said. "We are the first state in the nation to do this and we know we will not be the last."

Illinois temporarily made a similar change during the pandemic, but it ended in 2021.

Hourly school workers have been pushing for access to unemployment insurance for years. Some school administrators and GOP lawmakers have raised concerns, saying it will add costs to already cash-strapped districts.

Lawmakers agreed this session to devote about $135 million over the next two years to help pay for the mandate, but they did not approve funding long-term.

"That was a great decision at the end of the session to provide that protection for school districts' budgets," said Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matthew Hillmann, president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "As we get into this, of course we would hope additional funding would be coming school districts' way."

Districts will be watching to see if the change meets legislators' goals, he said.

Supporters predicted it will reduce pay inequities. Taylor said school support staff like her — who assist teachers, tutor small groups of students, monitor playgrounds and more — are mostly women and predominantly people of color.

Many hourly workers find summer jobs in retail, warehouses or food services and don't return to the classrooms in the fall because their other positions pay better, she said. That leads to more churn in students' lives and school hiring, Taylor said.