- Education Support Professional (ESP) shortages in all job categories are at record highs.
- Without substitutes, ESPs are reluctant to take any time off.
- Workloads have doubled, even tripled, for many ESPs.
Administrators drive buses, high school students work part-time in cafeterias, and parents fill in as front office personnel to keep schools running. Staff shortages have been exacerbated by the unavailability of substitutes to work when full-time staff get sick or need to take a day off for any reason, so districts have resorted to unusual options.
Jan Giles is the President of Education Support Employees Association (ESEA) in Clark County School District, Las Vegas, Nevada, the largest ESP local in NEA. In her district, staff levels are so low they have been asked to double, even triple their workloads.
A Catch 22
“With the shortages, we can’t fully be there for the students and we don’t want to complain and say ‘oh, that’s not my job,’” says Giles. “It’s a Catch 22. We know students need us, and it’s in our nature to help. But we’re going to have to find a way to show the district that we shouldn’t always have to go so far above and beyond. We need more help, and that means better pay and working conditions.”
When an ESP is doing double or triple their work with no days off and the stress of knowing they can’t get sick because there’s no back up, it takes a toll, says Giles. Some ESPs, though they loved their work, made tough decisions to find another career or retire because the toll was too heavy, she adds.
Member Organizing Saves Jobs, Increases Pay
In an effort to slow down the exits from ESP positions, Giles and the Clark County ESEA negotiated a total of $6,500 in retention bonuses for 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years for all ESPs.
Additionally, they saved thirty teacher assistant positions in the Family and Community Engagement Services (FACES) program before the district eliminated them by rallying community members to protest the cuts.
They also enabled first aid safety assistants to become certified nurse’s assistants (CNAs), which increased their pay.
“We worked with a local community college to create a training program. They were paid to take the training and when they completed it, they moved up 11 steps on the salary scale,” Giles says.
They also were able to make school office managers into 12-month employees, up from 11 months.
And, with inflation and increases in cost of living, the union helped members make ends meet during the holidays by assembling and delivering food baskets.
“Everyone is struggling with inflation and increasing price of food and goods, and it’s one way we show the value of being a member,” Giles says. “We also show them that joining the union gives us more power in numbers when we send letters to the trustees, or meet with the superintendent, and when we sit down to negotiate with the district.”
Organizing with Campus Action Teams in Texas
Paul Farias, a food service employee in the San Antonio Unified School District in Texas and a leader in the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Professionals, helped create Campus Action Teams (CATs) to address issues facing certain job categories on campuses throughout the district.
Currently there are CATs for food service workers, custodians, and transportation employees. They meet once a month to discuss the problems their members face on their campuses and to share ideas and solutions.
The Food Service Action Team discovered that allocation of staff was a common problem. For every one food service worker, there are 100 kids to serve. So if a campus has 300 students, there are three food service workers, including the food service manager. Not only is it not enough staff for the workload, there aren’t enough hours to serve the students.
“We realized that we need more hours during the day, lower allocations of students, and we needed to take managers off of the staff allocation,” Farias says.
On the front lines, staff members do their best to get meals out and kids fed in just 30 minutes -- fifteen minutes waiting in line and fifteen minutes to eat.
“We can’t have the food service manager included in the work of getting out meals while also doing managerial duties like office work and answering emails,” he says.
Often, an email comes in to say a certain food item can’t be served. If a manager is helping prep food they might not get it until the last minute and then the staff scrambles to replace that item, putting everything behind and giving students even less time to eat.
“We need more staff to get food prepared and served, and we need to allow managers to focus on their job alone,” he says.
The CATs also realized fewer substitutes made working conditions worse for full time ESPs who feel they can’t take time off when necessary. They identified a group of retired people who expressed interest in subbing but couldn’t navigate the online application.
Now, anyone having trouble with the online forms or uploading documents can visit the San Antonio Alliance office and get help with their application, which has increased the number of subs available.
They also increased the pay for food service substitutes from $9.25 an hour to $12.
“It’s not a huge jump but it’ll help get more staff through the door,” says Farias.