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Help Pass The Fair Minimum Wage Act

By Dave Arnold

President Barack Obama signed an executive order on February 12 to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour starting next year. He announced during his State of the Union address last month that he intended to take executive action to raise wages for federal contract workers involved in new contracts and replacements for expiring contracts.

The order covers custodians, kitchen service and other low-wage workers on behalf of federal contractors. As head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in southern Illinois, I applaud the president’s effort.

Obama also pressed Congress to enact legislation to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 for all workers nationwide. I’m sure education support professionals (ESPs) nationwide were also cheering and clapping about the proposal.

According to the NEA Research Department, there are approximately 2.2 million K-12 ESPs working in our nation’s public schools. More than 590,000 (27 percent) earn less than $10.10 per hour.

Although many of my fellow ESPs in Region 5 of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) have kept their chins above the minimum wage drowning level, ESPs in some locals are very close to existing at rock bottom. For them, that means working two jobs, paying bills late, borrowing money to make mortgage or credit card payments, or just doing without.

Earning minimum wage today is equivalent to an annual salary of $15,080 for a full-time worker. This is far below the $23, 550 that is the official poverty level for a family of four. I think we all know someone in this situation.

More than 4.8 million workers now earn the lowest legal pay. That’s approximately 5 percent of our nation’s workforce, including many of our ESP brothers and sisters and the parents of many of our students.

That’s one reason why it is so important for ESPs to support the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in three steps. One easy method is to contact your congressional representatives through NEA’s Legislative Action Center. You simply need to fill in your zip code and you will be guided to the names of your congressional representatives. From there, click the button that requests their support to raise the federal minimum wage. Another show of support is to access the Share Your Story form on NEA’s Education Votes. This is no time to be shy. As ESPs, we need to take action now and share our stories regarding the current, demeaning minimum wage.

In Brownstown, I have witnessed an entirely different problem concerning the minimum wage. It involves substitute workers. Most ESPs in our nine job categories have gained reasonable salary levels through negotiation. Substitute workers, however, receive minimum wage. Except for substitute bus drivers. They are paid by the run.

Consequently, it has been difficult to find individuals to substitute for ESPs when all they can hope to receive is minimum wage ($8.25 in Illinois). Once a person learns what is required of paraeducators, office workers, custodians, food service and other workers, they run in the other direction. Our efficiency level is miles higher than most people know.

Most people have no idea about the certification requirements, level of expertise and specialized knowledge attached to most ESP jobs. Hopefully, the increase to $10.10 will make substituting for an ESP in our school district a little less painful. It will also emphasize that when employers pay a fair wage, they get a more efficient workforce.

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(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in southern Illinois. He can be contacted at darnoldjanitor@yahoo.com.)

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


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