“Dreaming isn’t expensive. It costs the same to dream big as it does to dream small,” Special Education Assistant Esmeralda Torres tells her students.
Esmeralda makes sure her students dream big and embrace challenging subjects. She especially likes teaching algebra. “I love it when a student understands and gets more confident,” she says.
She encouraged her four children to dream big. “Never let money be an obstacle to learning,” she told them. “If you have the desire, God will provide.” And despite financial struggles, all of her children headed to college after high school.
Education is a big deal to Esmeralda. Before she started working for the Los Angeles Unified School District, she volunteered in the classroom when her children went through LAUSD schools. She loves being in the classroom. She was a teacher in Mexico. Here in the U.S., she has completed 63 units toward her teaching degree. She “dreams big” about being a teacher again one day.
Like 284,000 dedicated school workers in California working in mostly low-wage classified positions, Esmeralda is denied access to unemployment insurance during the summer months. The financial instability this causes her family makes her wonder every year if she can afford to stay at the job she loves.
Esmeralda applies for summer school every summer. Once in a while she’s lucky. If there’s no work for her with the school district, she tries local restaurants and shops. It’s always the same story. No one wants to hire her for such a short time. The family borrows money and tries to hang on to their home until September.
The median income for California paraprofessionals like Esmeralda is $14,446. Thousands of these families have no health insurance. Families like Esmeralda’s are especially vulnerable to any interruption in pay. Some are even forced to rely on public assistance during the summer months.
“We’ve never been on a family vacation. We can’t even afford to go to the beach because it’s $10 just to park.”
Education is Esmeralda’s life. She can’t imagine another job. Since she was a girl, school was central. Her parents couldn’t afford school supplies, so she worked at a grocery after school to earn money for paper and colored pencils. She got straight As, but stayed after school anyway to do extra school work to impress her teachers. And as a school employee, she’s inspired and encouraged hundreds of children.
“If we were more financially stable, I would go back to school and become a teacher,” Esmeralda says. She says it’s her life’s mission to raise successful children. “The middle school children I work with every day ask me why I care about them so much. I tell them because one day you will be my doctor, my nurse or the police officer who pulls me over. ‘Please don’t give me a ticket!’ I tease them.”
Cruel Summer: Economic Impacts of Extending Unemployment Benefits to Public K-12 Classified Workers in the State of California examines the challenges school workers like Esmeralda face, lays out the economic benefits that unemployment insurance payments would have on California’s economy, and makes a strong case for adjusting unemployment insurance guidelines to lift dedicated school workers out of poverty.
Currently, California’s classified school employees hope that a new bill, Summer Bridge Fund for School Workers Bill (AB 621), will make it to the Governor’s desk and be signed into law.
Dedicated school employees in California are the only seasonal workers in the state denied access to unemployment insurance.
Like many classified school employees in California and across the country, Esmeralda and other members of SEIU Local 99: Education Workers United use their strength in numbers to establish the good working conditions necessary to deliver quality student services. To learn more, visit www.qualityschoolsbetterlives.org.