ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — After her work as a substitute teacher in New York City dried up, Ameena Ahmed got a welcome $4,200 boost last summer in federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits.
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.
“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.
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.
States are obligated to seek recovery of federal employment benefits sent in error, but they can allow recipients to seek waivers for certain types of aid because of financial hardships. Different states have different unemployment insurance laws and different approaches to waivers, so the experiences of substitutes with unemployment benefits varies nationwide.
In North Carolina, a substitute in Greensboro who began collecting federal pandemic benefits in March 2020 was informed this April she had to pay back about $23,000. The 68-year-old woman was told she was ineligible because the schools were not closed by the pandemic. Her attorney Seth Cohen notes that the schools went remote, resulting in no more requests for her to teach.
State officials later reversed their decision after an appeal and local news stories, Cohen said.
In Hawaii, officials last July determined that substitute teachers didn’t have a reasonable assurance of more work in the fall, clearing the way for them to receive unemployment benefits in the summer.
New York labor officials stressed that benefit eligibility is determined on a case-by-case basis.
“Each claim is unique and there are a number of reasons why a claimant might be required to repay benefits,” according to a statement from the department.
Separate but related arguments about the notices are being made in federal court on behalf of school bus drivers and attendants. A lawsuit filed in April involves six school bus drivers and attendants employed in the Rochester, New York, suburb of Greece who were told they owed back between $4,200 and $8,100 in federal unemployment benefits and penalties.
Attorney Peter Dellinger, who is seeking to bring the case as a statewide class action, said one of the plaintiffs is an 81-year-old man who drives a bus to supplement Social Security for himself and his wife.
“He’s 81 years old and driving a bus.” Dellinger said. “These are not wealthy people.”
State labor officials did not comment on the pending litigation.
As for substitute teachers, Salk said administrative law judges often rule against them. She believes the substitutes should get their benefits returned.
“They should not be charging them with overpayments,” she said. “They should not be saying to these folks, ‘You have to pay back this money.’”