No more unemployment checks for seasonal workers

@CNNMoney May 31, 2012: 10:09 AM ET
School bus drivers in Savannah, Ga. protest a new state rule that restricts them for applying for unemployment benefits when school is out of session.

School bus drivers in Savannah, Ga. protest a new state rule that restricts them for applying for unemployment benefits when school is out of session.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Should seasonal workers be allowed to collect unemployment checks in their downtime?

A growing number of states are saying no.

From school bus drivers to ballet dancers to lifeguards, many workers whose jobs only last for a portion of the year have traditionally been eligible for jobless benefits. But now states across the country are starting to crack down, trying to save money and rescue insolvent jobless funds.

Federal law gives each state the option to decide whether or not to allow seasonal workers to take benefits. Now strapped for funds, many states are stripping some workers of their eligibility.

For example, earlier this year, New Jersey Republicans introduced a bill that would require the state to identify specific seasonal industries that operate about 9 months of the year or less, and deny those workers unemployment benefits in the off-season.

"Individuals who work in a truly seasonal industry know that the work will not continue past a certain time," said New Jersey assemblyman Sean Kean, when he co-sponsored the bill. "Therefore, it makes sense to end seasonal workers' unemployment benefits. This is a common sense measure that will save taxpayers and help the state's unemployment insurance fund."

In all, about 15 states currently restrict the payment of unemployment benefits to workers who earned some or most of their wages in seasonal jobs. They all define seasons differently, some based on time frames and others based on industries.

Who gets benefits and who doesn't?

Federal law already prohibits professional athletes from accessing unemployment benefits between two seasons. Similarly, teachers who work directly for school districts have been ineligible to take unemployment during the summer, ever since Congress amended federal law in the 1970s.

But for other workers, it's up to the states to decide. For example, private educational contractors -- like bus drivers, crossing guards, janitors and cafeteria workers -- have been entitled to unemployment benefits in many states, any time school is out of session.

Landscapers and construction workers can often apply for unemployment in the winter.

Entertainment workers like actors, stagehands, television producers, ballet dancers and opera singers sometimes collect between seasons.

And in some states, even workers in the hospitality industry can submit claims when the tourist season ends.

Now, some policymakers are picking and choosing specific industries to restrict, with school contract workers being a common target.

Jerome Irwin has collected unemployment benefits every summer, for the last 10 years. A school bus driver in Savannah, Ga., he is typically out of work for two to three months each year. During that time, he relies on unemployment benefits, usually amounting to about $285 a week.

But this year, the unemployment checks won't come. Not after Georgia's Department of Labor enacted a rule restricting school contractors from jobless benefits. School bus drivers in the state are planning a protest against the rule this week.

"We're going to have people losing their homes, losing their cars, and not being able to feed their families," Irwin said. "Once we reach our last paycheck, we have to apply for some kind of assistance -- welfare, food stamps or any other kind of assistance we can find."

Tennessee passed a similar law last year, and Massachusetts appointed a task force to study the issue. Arizona and Kansas already have specific restrictions for school contractors written into their laws.

"Our limited resources for unemployment benefits are reserved for people who have lost their job through no fault of their own and are seeking another job," Mark Butler, Georgia's Department of Labor Commissioner, said in a statement explaining the change.

In Virginia, Republican state Delegate Manoli Loupassi has proposed a bill that would target symphony workers in particular.

"They're not unemployed. They know they're coming back. They always come back," Loupassi told the Richmond Times Dispatch in January. "They just have a job that's seasonal. Baseball players don't get to collect unemployment in the off season."

In Massachusetts, Colorado and Pennsylvania seasonal workers can no longer apply for benefits unless they're laid off during their typical working season. A ski instructor, for example, could only collect unemployment if they lost their job in the winter. To top of page

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