“I had to forego on some bills,” Ahmed recalled. “I had to prioritize my food and my rent and the bills that were very important to get by.” State labor officials would not provide data on how many of New York’s more than 29,000 substitute teachers applied for unemployment benefits when the pandemic shut down in-person learning last year, or how many, like Ahmed, were subsequently told they had to give benefits back.
Then New York state started taking it back. She was informed she was not entitled to the federal benefits for the summer of 2020 since city schools had previously told her there was a good chance of more work that fall. That left Ahmed, a 26-year-old Brooklyn resident who earned less than $200 per day subbing, suddenly on the hook for thousands of dollars. Labor advocates estimate that thousands of substitutes and other education workers were told to return payments based on the number of substitute teachers statewide and the appeals they have handled. While Ahmed recently won back the money, not all have.
They have asked the state to review similar rulings against substitute teachers. Ordinarily, substitute teachers don’t get to apply for unemployment benefits simply because there is no work for them over the summer, when schools aren’t in session. School districts nationwide routinely send notices to subs at the end of the academic year giving them a “reasonable assurance” there will be work available in the fall.
Ahmed got such a notice in June of 2020 from New York City. But advocates argue that at that point in the pandemic, it was hard to predict whether the promised work would actually come through. It wasn’t clear when and how schools would reopen. Gov. Andrew Cuomo was warning of potential 20% aid cuts and did not give classrooms a green light to reopen for in-person learning until August. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio was saying the stress on city government was so great there might be sweeping layoffs. “There was no way that they could have provided reasonable assurance because the economic conditions were very poor. And there were a huge amount of uncertainties,” said Nicole Salk, senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC.
Ultimately, the start of the school year was delayed and a majority of kids did their instruction through remote learning. Ahmed’s application for unemployment aid was initially granted, but New York later determined she had to pay back some benefits and began deducting about $130 a week from her unemployment starting at the end of November, she said. The determination did not affect her state unemployment benefits, which are not recoverable under New York law if the recipient is not at fault, Salk said. Ahmed appealed. An administrative law judge ruled against her, but another appeals board overruled that decision in June. The state recently gave back Ahmed the roughly $1,500 that was taken from her. Now working as a registered nurse, Ahmed said the money is helping her get back on her feet.
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