When Kat Hamm was in preschool, she’d come home from school, line up her grandmother’s potted plants on the steps leading up to the front door and “teach” them whatever she’d learned that day — her numbers, the alphabet, colors.
“Anything that had to do with education,” she says. “Ever since then, I’ve known that I wanted to work with children.”
Kat especially loves working with children with learning disabilities, largely because she struggled with learning disabilities herself as a child. For the past 18 years, she has worked as a Special Education Assistant for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“I love to nurture those kids. Most children at my worksite and in the community call me ‘Mama Hamm.’ In fact, I’ve probably known half this year’s graduates since they were in middle school.”
That’s during the school year.
During the summer, when her paychecks abruptly stop, Kat has a completely different job.
“Do you know what dumpster diving is? When most people are sleeping, I’m out collecting glass bottles, cans and whatever else is recyclable,” says Kat. “It’s dangerous for a single woman to be doing this in the middle of the night. But, by the grace of God, I’ve kept safe and it’s helped me pay some bills. I’ve done this during the summer for as long as I’ve worked for LAUSD.”
Kat is one of more than 284,000 school workers in California who are denied access to the state’s unemployment insurance system during the “cruel summer” months, unlike other seasonal workers. Like so many classified school employees, she looks for summer work, but employers either tell her she’s overqualified or they’re not interested in hiring her for such a short period of time.
Now that summer is here again, the “past due” envelopes and eviction notices will also start coming, too. It’s likely that Kat’s children (both — like Kat — graduates of LAUSD schools) will help her out again until she can get some kind of assistance — like the one year she was lucky enough to qualify for a few weeks of SNAP. It’s a never ending cycle for Kat and her co-workers. They get behind in bills during the summer, start to catch up, then get hit with Thanksgiving, then Christmas. They never catch up, let alone get ahead.
This year, Kat has some hope. With her union, she traveled to Sacramento in May to urge legislators to support the Summer Bridge Fund for School Workers Bill (AB 621), which would allow classified school workers to contribute one day of pay each month to a Summer Bridge Fund. In return, the state would provide a 2-to-1 match. That would provide the equivalent of full pay for most of the summer.
“I really hope this makes it to Governor Brown’s desk and that he signs it,” says Kat. “I would not change my career for any other job, but the summers are very difficult.”
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, Kat 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.