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Bargaining on the Golden Years

Negotiate Your Members Toward a Prosperous Future

Dave Arnold

A few years ago, my local Association of education support professionals (ESP) was going through a rough contract negotiation. The money just wasn't there that year, so the school board wasn't budging on anything.


Then lightening struck. We all shifted our strategy and started looking at long-term benefits that wouldn't cost the school district anything at the moment.

Look Ahead

Part of that particular negotiation included the ability of each ESP to cash in on their unused sick days upon retirement or self-termination of employment. Where I work in Illinois, an ESP can accumulate a maximum of 240 sick days. When added to holiday and vacation time for a fulltime employee, an ESP of our local could retire a year early.

This is different than our teacher retirement provisions. In Illinois, a teacher's retirement is paid 100 percent by the school district. Although some school districts don't provide this, so employees and employers share the cost with equal contributions.

Teachers are allowed a maximum of 200 accumulated sick days since they do not work 12 months. By law, a teacher's accumulated sick days can be transferred from one district to another if they change jobs. The law doesn't allow ESPs this luxury.

Being denied this and other long-term gains make may be one of the reasons our members hunger more for short-term benefits. Those of us on the negotiations team back then knew that most people focused on the work, and the household bills, at hand.

We eventually convinced members that we should capitalize on the payout benefit. Turned out to be a good move.

Worth the Grief

Our school board hadn't fully realized the impact of that item until it was locked in. When one of my fellow ESPs decided to retire soon after the agreement was signed, the school board woke up, then had to pay up. My co-worker was able to retire a year early at full pay. The school board didn't like it.

We felt we'd done a good job of negotiating and knew that the next negotiation would be tougher. We were right.

The next session was a knockdown drag-out. The school board wanted to remove the payout on accumulated sick days. After much negotiating, proposing, and counter-proposing, we came to the following agreement:

  • Payout on unused sick days up to retirement, or self-termination, at $30.00 per day up to a maximum of 240 days.
  • If an employee reaches the maximum of unused sick days during the course of their employment, they will be paid $30.00 per day for each unused sick day over the maximum of 240 days at the end of each school year.
  • A bonus of $100 per year for each year of employment upon retirement.

Municipal Systems

In addition to Association and school benefits, ESPs might also collect from municipal pay plans. In most states, ESPs pay into a municipal retirement plan along with other city maintenance employees, library workers, public hospital employees, and (often) township employees.

Employees who pay into a municipal retirement system also pay Social Security. Upon retirement or disability, ESPs can draw benefits from both systems.

It's different for teachers. They pay into a teacher retirement system and can only draw benefits from there unless they also worked at a job outside of the school system.

The municipal retirement system is rather complex. To learn more, contact your Association or attend a workshop at a state or national ESP conference. I have attended sessions on retirement and each year the number of attendees increases.

The first sessions that I attended in the 1980s and 1990s were geared for those looking to retire in the near future. Now, as more ESPs begin thinking long-term, the focus seems to have switched to how an employee can start building their nest egg from Day One.

Good to Know

Every ESP needs to get a reasonable understanding of their retirement system. If you dig a little, you may pick up strategies to help you earn more in your Golden Years. For example:

  • Most retirement benefits are based on the average annual income of the employee's last six years of work.  So, it is crucial for employees to stay healthy and maintain good attendance in their final years to keep their income up.
  • Working and collecting overtime generally to build those years up isn't recommended since the highest and lowest of those years is kicked out. It's the average that is used.
  • In some school districts, an ESP may also have the option of paying into an individual retirement account, such as a 401(k) or a specified certificate of deposit.

The irony of retirement for ESPs is that they may enjoy a higher income after they stop working. Since ESP salaries are somewhat low, it is possible that when their social security benefits are added to their retirement plans, the income figure might exceed their final salary.  In my next column, I talk with a group of retired ESPs to learn how their retirement lifestyles differ from what they thought they would be like.

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.

Dave's View has been discontinued following the retirement of its author, Dave Arnold. Even though new columns will not be posted, we encourage you to review past columns.