PORTLAND, Ore. — Teachers in the largest school district in Oregon voted Tuesday on a proposal to furlough all staff for one day a week through July to save money during the pandemic and then use money from unemployment and the federal bailout to backfill their pay.
Portland’s school board approved the plan late Tuesday, and the district has gotten approval from the Oregon Employment Department. Labor unions for other school staff, including custodians and bus drivers, have already approved the idea, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The school board voted to add three weather days to the school calendar, which means two instructional days will be lost during the current school year.
The district’s student meal service will run Monday through Thursday, but Thursday’s distribution will include enough food to cover meals through Sunday.
The plan will allow the district to save 20% on employee pay that can be used next year to fund teaching positions and instructional days, according to materials posted online by the Portland Association of Teachers. Oregon's schools rely heavily on personal income tax revenue, which has plummeted because of Gov. Kate Brown's stay-at-home order, and district officials have said they could see as much as a $60 million shortfall next year.
The plan, however, has drawn ire from some parents who feel it's an unfair use of the federal bailout dollars to boost pay for furloughed teachers while so many people are unemployed and struggling. Critics took to social media after the school board vote, calling it a “gross abuse of the system” and a fleecing of taxpayers.
“Teach less, learn less, make more. Tell me that sounds right to anyone?” Portland-based conservative talk show host Lars Larson said during a segment on the deal that aired Tuesday on “The Lars Larson Show."
District officials defended the proposal, saying they were being creative but were still using the federal funds in the way they were intended.
“This is the very intention of the CARES Act money, and I hope that other employers consider this as an alternative to laying off workers because that is the intention of the money,” Sharon Reese, the district’s human resources chief, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
District staff will see their pay decrease by 20%, but will be eligible to receive an additional $600 per week through federal CARES Act funds through the Oregon Work Share Program. They can also receive 20% of regular unemployment insurance, and benefits will be unchanged.
The school district will submit the claim forms for all its employees, as well as weekly certifications proving a reduction in hours, so educators and other staff will not be expected to file weekly submissions to unemployment.
A little-known provision in the federal bailout package means workers in Oregon and many other states qualify for the full $600-a-week federal boost in unemployment payments if they lose as little as 10% of their pay because of coronavirus.
For example, a Portland teacher earning the top-tier salary of $88,000 would lose about $460 a week in district pay. But that teacher would qualify for $600 a week from the federal rescue package plus about $130 from the state unemployment system. So weekly gross pay could rise from about $2,290 to about $2,565 — a raise of nearly 12%.
For workers who earn less than $88,000, the percentage raise would be even larger, as $600 would further dwarf the weekly cut in their pay from Portland Public Schools.