This is the first installment in a two-part series reported with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Shane Lorenzen finally caught COVID days before Christmas in 2022.
A substitute teacher in New York City, he knew the state offered paid COVID leave to public employees — a key protection for essential workers put in place early in the pandemic. But when he asked his school payroll secretary about it, she informed him that as a sub, he didn’t qualify.
Like thousands of substitutes, Lorenzen helped prop up the city’s education system throughout the pandemic. He signed up in March 2020 to staff one of the education centers for the children of health care professionals, transit workers, and other frontline employees when regular schools were closed to other kids. During the omicron wave in January 2022, he was in the classroom as thousands of teachers went on sick leave.
When Lorenzen tested positive himself, the denial of paid leave felt like a slap in the face. He tried to insist — and was asked not to come back to his school.
Substitutes have been entitled to paid COVID leave since the state mandated the benefit in 2020, the New York state Department of Labor confirmed. But many subs assumed they didn’t qualify and never requested the benefit. And in New York City, many were denied even if they did ask.
The city Department of Education instructed schools to exclude nearly all substitute teachers and substitute paraprofessionals from the benefit, according to internal emails New York Focus obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.
“Generally speaking substitutes … would not be eligible to receive the excused leave at full pay for up to two weeks if they needed to quarantine,” the DOE advised schools in an email. “They would not be paid for any time not worked.”
“I got COVID recently, and last year,” said one former substitute teacher in Bushwick who requested anonymity out of fear of employer retaliation. “[COVID leave] wasn’t a conversation that was had between me and the school.”
An education department spokesperson confirmed that during the pandemic, staff received guidance indicating that per diem workers — the teachers and paraprofessionals employed on a day-to-day basis who make up the majority of the substitute workforce — do not qualify for sick leave or other benefits normally provided to full-time staff. The spokesperson later contradicted this guidance, telling New York Focus in a phone call that subs could receive paid COVID leave if they provided a “quarantine order,” as required by the March 2020 state law.
Asked to elaborate, the department did not acknowledge the contradiction, only reiterating that per diems were not included in its guidance for schools.
The state Labor Department confirmed that per diem workers are included in the mandate.
“NYC DOE (including substitute teachers or sub paraprofessionals) qualify for paid COVID leave,” the Labor Department press office wrote. The DOE did not respond to the state agency’s apparently contradictory interpretation of the law.
Among subs, the lack of support has added to a sense that the school system sees them as disposable — even after they stepped up to help the city in a time of great need.
“I saw a couple of my coworkers get sick and get taken out in an ambulance, and I never saw them again,” said Lorenzen, recalling the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic’s early days. “And they were subs. They were subs or paras.”
While much attention has been paid to the sacrifices that full-time teachers made and the harms that students sustained during the pandemic, substitutes like Lorenzen played a critical role in holding the system together.
As sickness, refusal to abide by vaccine mandates, and burnout pushed thousands of teachers out of their posts, the city’s teacher attrition rate reached a decade high in 2022, with 2,000 fewer teachers in the system than five years earlier. Full-time teachers are still calling out sick at higher rates than before the pandemic, and the crisis may worsen as the United States experiences one of the largest surges in COVID cases since 2020, with New York flagged as a hot zone by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a public resolution addressing schools’ difficulties in hiring substitutes, the United Federation of Teachers recently asked the DOE to make nominations for substitute teachers and sub paras more flexible, and to offer subs pay differentials in “hard-to-staff” schools.
But while full-time teachers are still being offered COVID leave, subs remain in the lurch.
“There’s no safety net for me,” said the former Bushwick sub. “It was disappointing because there was this whole chatter about ‘essential workers,’ but it just felt like I wasn’t getting taken care of as a worker in the city.”
The DOE did not respond to requests for the number of substitutes in the city system, nor how many of them got sick with COVID. But based on broader figures — over 75% of Americans have contracted the virus at least once; over 35,000 short-term substitute teachers work in New York state; and well over 100,000 COVID cases have been confirmed among DOE staff since September 2020 — it’s likely that thousands of New York City substitutes have contracted the virus.
Although some subs work at their schools on longer-term appointments, many are still paid by the day — usually at a $200 rate. They typically don’t get employer-funded health insurance or paid sick days. But in March 2020 — when Lorenzen became a sub — the state passed a law, which is still in effect, granting some private and all public sector workers between five and 14 days of paid sick leave for Covid isolation and precautionary quarantines.
During severe coronavirus surges, DOE administrators tasked with answering COVID leave questions advised school staff that most substitutes did not qualify for paid COVID leave in at least 57 responses, according to emails New York Focus obtained via FOIL. (Initial senders’ names were redacted, but the number of threads suggests that dozens of schools inquired about the issue.)
Just four complaints were filed against the DOE for failing to provide substitutes paid COVID leave, according to Labor Department officials, who declined to provide further details about the cases. DOE officials said they received only one related complaint from the Labor Department, which was promptly addressed.
As teachers called out sick, schools grew increasingly desperate to place subs in classrooms, many in longer-term assignments. The DOE resorted to offering “special financial incentives” to subs when COVID rates were highest — up to $100 extra per day, according to emails sent to substitutes and obtained by New York Focus.
According to Lorenzen, there were periods during bad COVID surges, like the omicron wave, when most of the teachers in his school were substitutes. Others described a similar reliance.
“We reopened the schools back up and kept them open,” said Joe Diodato, a full-time teacher who subbed for a year and a half in the Bronx beginning in the winter of 2020. “It only happened because of subs.”
While subs often teach to supplement other jobs, some rely on substitute teaching as their primary source of income. From the three days Lorenzen was absent due to COVID isolation, he lost $615.75 from his paycheck. Other subs may have lost north of $2,800.
“Earned sick days are particularly important for low-wage workers who, absent sick leave, lack the savings, access to credit or assets needed to buffer against lost earnings if they need to take time off,” wrote Hilary Wething, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute who co-authored a report on state paid sick leave policies, in an email to New York Focus.
Paid leave can also protect the health of other staff and students by keeping people home when they’re sick. One substitute at a school in Brooklyn, who requested anonymity, said that he felt forced to work while down with the flu in order to pay his bills.
“I endured the whole week of just being sick,” he said. “I could not even speak, and I just did the job.”
When his school’s payroll secretary told Jack Ganley he was ineligible for leave, a teachers union representative instructed him to file a complaint with the Labor Department. Ganley, a substitute paraprofessional at a Brooklyn elementary school, decided not to file a complaint — or even raise the issue with school administrators.
“I can guarantee what the response would be, which would be we can’t help you,” Ganley said.
Multiple workers described a culture of retaliation in New York City public schools, with little recourse available to subs who are fired for filing grievances or otherwise challenging school administrators. Many of the subs who spoke to New York Focus requested anonymity for that reason.
Lorenzen was the only substitute interviewed who made a persistent attempt to claim his benefits.
When Lorenzen got sick, he emailed Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice in Crown Heights, where he was substitute teaching full-time. Aware of the March 2020 law, Lorenzen made sure to mention COVID leave in his initial communication.
“I’m hoping that at this point I am entitled to sick pay, as I cannot afford to take time off, but do not want to come in if I am still symptomatic,” wrote Lorenzen in a December 20, 2022, email, reviewed by New York Focus, to Nelson Mandela’s payroll secretary and principal.
He tested positive the next day and stayed home for the last three days before winter break.
The payroll secretary wished him well, but ignored his inquiry regarding sick leave.
After winter recess ended, Lorenzen returned to the classroom and asked the school repeatedly whether he would receive pay for the missed days. The school eventually said he wouldn’t because he wasn’t a full-time employee, though documents he provided to New York Focus show he was indeed working as a full-time substitute.
But it shouldn’t have mattered, Lorenzen believed. He shared with the school a public personnel memo from the DOE stating that part-time workers qualified for the leave, too. According to a United Federation of Teachers spokesperson, subs have previously won their paid sick days through the union grievance process by citing the memo.
In a conversation on January 9, 2023, a recording of which was shared with New York Focus, Nelson Mandela principal Matthew Anderson told Lorenzen that the problem was technical: Because of an issue with payroll codes, the school was operationally incapable of releasing the benefits. Anderson did not respond to multiple email requests for comment.
It seems the principal’s hands were tied. The Education Department did not appear to have distributed the appropriate codes for per diem employees, payroll memos obtained through a public records request confirmed. Only “long-term substitutes” classified as “part-time” — rather than “per diem” — workers qualified for COVID leave, as officials told schools in dozens of emailed messages.
Lorenzen kept on insisting, sending email after email. Then, less than two weeks after returning from winter recess, an assistant principal informed him that it would be his last day at Nelson Mandela. Originally, Lorenzen said, his position was supposed to last until June.
Anderson, the principal, told Lorenzen that he was being let go for budgetary reasons and that the school had teachers returning to fill his position, according to a recording of their meeting that day. A DOE spokesperson noted that terminations of subs’ positions are typical upon the return of a regular staff member or a shift in school needs, especially during the pandemic.
When Lorenzen suggested that the school was retaliating against him, Anderson chided him for being confrontational.
“I don’t have anything to do with the money you’re missing,” he said. “Continue with the process and you’ll get your money. That’s an issue with the city and central services.”
Lorenzen filed a complaint with the Labor Department shortly after he lost his position, but he has not heard back.
Nearly a year later, he’s still waiting to receive his benefits.
Teddy Ostrow is a journalist from Brooklyn. He was the host of The Upsurge podcast and his work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, In These Times, and elsewhere.