California Supreme Court finds some district employees eligible for unemployment benefits during summer term

17 Feb
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On Jan. 16, 2020, the California Supreme Court reversed a court of appeal decision and held that section 1253.3 of the Unemployment Insurance Code (section 1253.3) does not bar public school employees from collecting unemployment benefits if the summer session constitutes an “academic term.” The Court’s decision in United Educators of San Francisco v. San Francisco Unified School District means that some school districts employees may be eligible for unemployment benefits during the summer, but it’s not yet clear how many districts may be affected. CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance filed amicus briefs in support of San Francisco USD before the court of appeal and the Supreme Court.

Section 1253.3 states that unemployment benefits “are not payable to any individual … during the period between two successive academic years or terms … if there is a contract or a reasonable assurance that the individual will perform services for any educational institution in the second of the academic years or terms.”

In 2011, a group of 26 members of the UESF (substitute teachers and paraprofessional classified employees) applied for and were denied unemployment benefits for the period of time between May 27 and Aug. 15. The employees appealed.

The trial court, based on the plain meaning of the statute, ruled that substitute teachers, 10–month classified employees, and school employees who do not work all 12 months are not eligible for unemployment benefits during the summer months when school is normally not in session. The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision, finding that summer school is not an “academic term,” and cited the ELA’s amicus brief, noting that the California Department of Education treats the traditional academic calendar to mean the period when school is regularly in session for all students, and does not include summer school.

The Supreme Court’s decision overturns the appellate court’s ruling and sends the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. The Supreme Court held that substitute teachers and paraprofessionals may be eligible for unemployment benefits during a district’s summer session if it constitutes an “academic term” — that is, if the summer session, “on the whole, resembles the institution’s other academic terms based on objective criteria such as enrollment, staffing, budget, and the instructional program offered.” The Court further wrote that “if a school district with conventional fall and spring semesters also offers a two-week summer session with limited offerings and limited enrollment, the summer session would not be a ‘regular’ term. By contrast, if a school district offers a summer session that resembles the fall and spring semesters in terms of enrollment, staffing, budget, and the instructional program offered, then the summer session would qualify as a ‘regular’ term.”

The Court did not determine whether the UESF employees were actually eligible for unemployment benefits, as it found that the record from the lower court contained little evidence of whether San Francisco USD’s summer school session should be defined as an “academic term.” The Court sent the case back to the lower court to allow the district and union to present evidence on remand of the characteristics of the district’s summer session.

The ruling has the potential to create additional financial burdens for school districts that must pay into unemployment benefits during the summer session for some employees. However, few California school districts appear to be running comprehensive summer programs across all grade levels, with district-level supervision and funding. Districts that are not offering an “academic term” in the summer under the Court’s definition should not be affected by the Court’s decision. School districts will likely receive additional guidance on what constitutes an “academic term” under the statute, and whether some employees in their district may be eligible for unemployment benefits, through the further proceedings in the lower court.

The Supreme Court’s decision is available at: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S235903.PDF

Please note that the information provided here by CSBA is for informational purposes and is not legal advice. Please contact your district or county office of education’s legal counsel for legal questions related to this information.

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