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Reaching for a Living Wage

NEA rallies for educators forced to choose between heat and groceries.

The bitter cold and rain couldn’t keep Rick Taylor away. With so much at stake, how could he possibly miss his chance to rally for a living wage? As a Martin County (Kentucky) school board maintenance employee, Taylor earns just $8.56 an hour, or $16,435 annually. That adds up to $448 in his wallet every two weeks, not enough to cover living expenses, much less to take his wife and three youngest children to watch their oldest son play halfback on the Clark High School football team. The $25 admittance fee is almost a day’s take-home pay.

Without a salary increase, Taylor will again be forced to choose between buying groceries and heating his house when temperatures drop. Last winter, the family experienced some frosty nights. “With property taxes and heating costs rising, we might have to give up the house,” says Taylor, a three-year employee. “We built that house.” 

Bus driver/secretary Sherry Castle, a KEA area rep, helped organize the event.

And Taylor isn’t the only education support professional (ESP) struggling with these choices. Even as Kentucky ESPs rallied for increased salaries in Prestonsburg on that cold, October morning, their colleagues all over the country are working on living wage campaigns that promise to obtain wages that are commensurate with the expenditures of a family living above the poverty line.

NEA has taken up the call nationally with a new salary initiative to win an “appropriate living wage” as starting pay for ESPs and a $40,000 minimum salary for teachers.

Already, with national and state support, several local Associations are winning their battles for respect and wages.

The Ithaca Paraprofessionals Association of New York, for example, won a 50 percent wage increase over three years. In Montpelier, Vermont, ESPs won a 6 percent wage increase and a 25 percent reduction in health insurance co-payments. Even in the non-bargaining state of Alabama, members of the Birmingham ESP local won a 43 percent wage increase. The key to a campaign’s success, say organizers, is member involvement.

“The more involved members are at the local level, the more successful they’ll be at gaining a living wage,” says Bill Raabe, NEA director of Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy.

Getting Organized 

And members in Kentucky are getting involved. The ESPs’ living wage campaign, which kicked off on Labor Day with the goal of increasing ESP wages at schools in five counties, resulted in 280 new members being recruited in only a month’s time. The purpose of the October 8 rally was twofold: To bring Association members together with non-member ESPs, and to increase public awareness regarding the low wages and poor benefits paid to ESPs.

The rally, which included a pig roast with barbecue chicken and side dishes prepared by volunteers, was held at Wiley Lake State Park. And despite the inclement weather, approximately 165 turned out for the cause.

Maintenance employee Rick Taylor addressed the low wages and poor benefits paid to the state's 42,000 ESPs.

Richard Stonestreet, a labor leader and the event’s keynote speaker, discussed what is meant by a “living wage.” In a nutshell, a living wage can be considered the minimum hourly wage a person needs to pay for life’s basic necessities without relying on family, government, or public assistance. How is that determined? The Department of Health and Human Services compiles living wage figures, using an economic formula applied to an area’s cost of food, housing, transportation, utilities, childcare, healthcare, and taxes. The premise behind living wage campaigns is that people who work a full-time job should not live in poverty. 

But that premise clearly doesn’t hold true for many KEA ESPs. The Taylor family’s household income, for example, is well below the $25,386 considered necessary to meet living expenses in the state, and they rank below the national poverty level of $19,307 for a family their size.  

Many ESPs in Kentucky are skilled workers like Taylor, who must supplement their school income by working two and three jobs. Kentucky has about 42,000 ESPs, with approximately 65 percent earning less than $15,000 annually. While some ESPs have working spouses to supplement their income, a full 35 percent consider themselves heads of household, according to a KEA survey.

“Our school board could not contract any local electrician, roofer, carpenter, or mechanic for $8.56 an hour,” says Taylor, who routinely repairs plumbing and electrical fixtures in the district’s aging schools. “Board members should recognize how much they save by having me make repairs.”

In a recent study by NEA, Kentucky ESPs ranked 44th in the nation, earning an average of $16,489, which is more than $4,500 behind the U.S. average of $21,018. By comparison, ESPs in nearby Illinois make, on average, $22,441 and support professionals in West Virginia make $20,224.

In early 2006, KEA officials plan to ask school trustees for a new contract. The recent surge in membership (including an additional 21 members who joined at the rally) will certainly give leverage to KEA officials at upcoming school board meetings.  “We believe that in a few years, every school employee should be at or above the federal minimum poverty level,” says transportation secretary and bus driver Sherry Castle, who is also a KESPA board member.

  —John Rosales, Photos by Guillermo Cuenca


Are You Paid a Fair Wage?

Probably not! Here’s practical advice for getting a local campaign off the ground.

Staging a living wage campaign at the local level is considered one of the best methods for increasing wages, membership, and community awareness. “The ultimate outcome is to build a strong local and state Association,” says Bill Raabe, NEA director of Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy. “A living wage campaign not only raises salaries, but builds pride and instills a sense of camaraderie among ESPs.”  Raabe suggests that a living wage campaign include the following components:

  • Determine a living wage figure for your location (local researchers, and UniServ directors can help). Also, the Economic Policy Institute offers a formula to tabulate a wage figure. Go to, click on “online calculators,” then “basic family budget calculator.”
  • Inspire members to believe they deserve a fair wage for the work they do.
  • Determine a strategy that taps member strengths (some enjoy recruiting and interacting with community leaders, while others prefer to work behind the scenes).
  • Educate community organizations (labor, faith-based, parent) and other allies about the issue.
  • Recruit new members and help them understand the value they bring collectively to schools and the Association.
  • Tap Into NEA Resources

To learn more about the living wage issue (and why it’s a critical component to compensation enhancement), contact Dave Winans,  NEA Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy, at 202-822-7234 or also offers a wealth of information and research on teacher and ESP pay issues, including news stories on recent, successful living wage campaigns. To access, go to .

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