Following the mandated two week shutdown of Pennsylvania school districts effective March 16, 2020, our office has addressed numerous questions related to a school district’s obligations to pay the wages and salaries of its employees during the government mandated shutdown. The purpose of this communication is to provide general guidance to your school district as we continue to navigate through the unsettled legal issues brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Pennsylvania Public School Code is clear regarding the payment of teachers’ salaries during the period when a building is closed. Section 1153 of the School Code mandates that the school district shall pay the salaries of its teachers when the school board is compelled to close school due to, among other things, a contagious disease. Thus, it is clear that teachers will receive their contractually guaranteed salaries during any period of shutdown.
Determining whether or not support employees are entitled to receive hourly wages during a shutdown is a more nuanced question. The first place a school district should seek answers is its applicable collective bargaining agreement. Some collective bargaining agreements contain provisions guaranteeing continued wage payments in the event of an emergency, such as the current virus pandemic. Other collective bargaining agreements contain similar, but broader language, which can be left open to interpretation as to whether or not the school district is liable to make such payments. Our office can assist your school district in interpreting the applicable provisions of the pertinent collective bargaining agreement to ensure that your district is acting in accordance with the agreement.
Complicating matters is the fact that the federal government has proposed numerous pieces of legislation designed to ease the burden of workers whose places of employment have been shut down as a result of the coronavirus, preventing them from working. Although, as of March 17, a relief bill has not yet been finalized, proposed initiatives for the final bill include a limited expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act to provide payment to affected workers, mandatory paid sick time, and the creation of payroll tax credits to compensate employers who are paying employees throughout the shutdown period. Until a final bill is passed into law, it is difficult to predict the effect the federal law will have on Pennsylvania school districts.
In certain school districts, support staff employees such as custodians and food service personnel are continuing in their jobs, as they are able to work during the shutdown performing maintenance and cleaning duties, or assisting the school district with preparing and delivering meals to individuals in need. For those support staff employees whose duties involve working with students, such as paraprofessionals, some school districts are taking the position that they will continue to pay those employees during the shutdown. Some school districts have committed to paying support staff for the duration of the shutdown, while others intend to re-assess the situation at the end of the initial two week shutdown period.
Understandably, Union representatives will advocate for all support staff employees to be paid at their usual rate for as long as schools are ordered to be closed. Our office has reviewed each of our school clients’ support staff contracts to determine the exact contractual language of each agreement. Based on this review and the current legislation, we will advise our school clients of their responsibilities and options moving forward. Further, some of our clients have made preliminary overtures to the Union representatives to discuss forming a memorandum of understanding which will guide the actions of both parties and better define employment terms through the duration of this matter. Of course, the terms of any MOU will be impacted by new legislation that addresses these issues. Our office strongly recommends that you contact us to begin these discussions.