Pay Cuts Often Target Support Staff
Education support professionals reject contract that would abolish salary schedule
By John Rosales
Jeanne Middleton has lived in Brighton, Ill., for more than two decades. Since 2008, she has worked for Southwestern Community Unit School District Number 9 as a bus driver, lunchroom monitor, and utility worker—all at the same time. The multiple jobs provide Middleton with enough work hours to qualify her for health insurance and other benefits.
“It’s challenging,” says Middleton, who is president of the Southwestern Education Support Professionals Association (SWESPA). “You get used to switching from one setting to the next, but it can drag you down a bit.”
Like many of the district’s ESPs, Middleton lives, shops, votes, and worships in the same school district where she works. She spends time with neighbors whose children are among those she drives to and from school.
“I graduated from Alton High School about 15 miles from where we live now,” she says.
Many of SWESPA’s 60 members are homegrown. They either attended the schools where they now work, have children attending these schools, or have a spouse who was born and raised in this rural farming community. They exemplify more than 70 percent of ESPs nationwide who live in the same district where they work. Still, superintendents and board members nationwide view ESPs like Middleton as expendable, evidenced by the fact that SWESPA’s collective bargaining agreement with the district was allowed to expire last June.
The two sides met throughout the summer—once under the supervision of a federal mediator—but SWESPA members overwhelmingly rejected a school district proposal for a two-year contract that would abolish the salary schedule for non-certified employees.
“It was a slap in the face,” Middleton says. “The salary schedule helps ESPs plan their financial futures and encourages them to continue working with the district.”
After an October 5 bargaining session that went deep into the night, a tentative agreement was reached. It maintains the salary schedule and includes a 5 percent salary increase over two years.
“Members understood that eliminating their negotiated salary schedule would have resulted in decreasing pay over their entire careers,” says Marcus Albrecht, the region’s UniServ Director with the Illinois Education Association (IEA). “This settlement demonstrates members’ voices matter.”
SALARY SCHEDULES, REMOVE BIAS
Like most, the SWESPA salary schedule is based on a step system taking into account the number of years an employee has worked for the district. Before the settlement, district officials proposed a flat 3 percent raise in year one and 2.5 percent raise in year two. In the district, the entry-level wage is $10.50 – $11.50 per hour. After 10 years, employees earn about $14.50 per hour, and it takes 18 years to reach the highest step or maximum hourly salary of $18 – $20 per hour.
The dismantlement of salary schedules is becoming a frequent tool of school districts nationwide and represents a departure in educator compensation.
“Abolishing the salary schedule is a new employer strategy,” Albrecht says. “It has the immediate effect of eliminating step compensation.”
The schedules establish a judicious compensation system that provides an increased hourly wage for years of service to the district. This holds true in Southwestern District 9, and across the nation, according to Carolyn York,
NEA’s director of collective bargaining and member advocacy.
“Salary schedules that provide step increases remove subjectivity and bias from compensation decisions and guarantee equal treatment of all employees irrespective of their age, race, gender, religion, popularity, or union activism,”
York says. “Salary schedules are objective, predictable, transparent, fiscally prudent, and help ensure that children have a stable, well-trained workforce educating them.”
While many school trustees judge salary schedules on merit, some antagonists harbor anti-union, anti-public educator agendas, says York, adding that some district officials have made the abolishment of salary schedules a priority.
Last October, members of IEA’s McHenry Community High School Educators’ Association went on strike when the education board tried to dismantle their salary schedule. While some workers push to have salary schedules modified to emphasize professional growth, a disadvantage to salary schedules is that low-starting wages force some workers to live in poverty.
“In some cases, it requires too many years of service before an employee can reach top professional pay,” York says. “This is especially true for ESPs who may work a decade or longer in a school district before they earn a living wage.”
Since 2012, Southwestern District 9 non-classified employees went without step increases. Instead, they were granted a flat 2 percent raise.
“This is typical of how so many districts unfairly and unnecessarily target ESP jobs and wages during a financial struggle,” Albrecht says. “They try to muscle ESPs for concessions even when there are sufficient funds in the budget.”
BACKBONE OF THE COMMUNITY
Most of the district’s 1,600 students (preK–12) live in the small towns of Brighton, Medora, Piasa, and Shipman. Rebecca Buttitta is a secretary with the district’s transportation department, treasurer of IEA Region 5, and a member of the SWESPA bargaining team. The area includes 37 locals, including SWESPA, whose members are deeply steeped in the community.
“These are the people who volunteer with the Girl Scouts, shop at Tom’s Supermarket and the Dollar Store, and buy gasoline at Casey’s,” says Buttitta. “They are the backbone of the community.”
Long stretches of cornfields and pastures dot the town’s highways. For some school bus drivers this means 100-mile days that start at 6:45 a.m. The drivers can transport as many as 50 students to school by first bell. Once they’ve picked students up at school and returned them home in the afternoon, some drivers rest, refuel, and transport more students to after school activities.
“In the evening, they sometimes have to drive the volleyball, basketball, or baseball team another 50 miles each way to play a game,” Buttitta says. “They are a pretty dedicated group.”
At the schools, custodians polish the floors to perfection, paraeducators work one on one with students, and food service workers sprint “from one end of the kitchen to the other trying to get kids their hot meals and fed on time,”
Buttitta explains. “The money was there to pay these workers. They weren’t asking for the moon.”
Study: Unions Boost Students’ Economic Mobility
Union density may predict an area’s financial success
By John Rosales
Children whose parents belonged to a union—and those who grew up in geographic areas with high union membership—climb higher up the career ladder and earn more money as adults, according to “Bargaining for the American Dream: What Unions do for Mobility,” a report from the Center for American Progress (CAP).
Findings were released last September at CAP headquarters in Washington, D.C., during a panel discussion, which included former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers, and report co-authors Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University, and David Madland, CAP managing director of economic policy.
Unions are a significant predictor of economic mobility even after controlling for variables including race, industry type, education level of parents, and other factors, said Madland, while presenting the report.
“We found that regions with greater union density had higher mobility for low-income children,” Madland said. “We also found that having a union parent leads to better educational and health outcomes for children.”
The authors, including Wellesley College Professor Eunice Han and CAP policy analyst Brendan Duke, identified this intergenerational union effect as being stronger for less-educated and less-skilled parents. Madland pointed to previous economic studies. One, “Where is the Land of Opportunity?” considered five factors showing the strongest geographical relationship with mobility: single motherhood rates, income inequality, high school dropout rates, segregation, and the economic benefits that come from preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups.
The CAP report may be the first, according to researchers, to examine the relationship between mobility and the previously unconsidered variable of union membership.
“Researchers have produced a plethora of studies on how falling union membership has increased income inequality, and this report will hopefully inspire others to examine the relationship between unions and mobility,” the authors said.
One of the challenges facing the U.S. today is the need to reduce income inequality and increase economic mobility, said Freeman.
“As the country is trying to reduce inequality and certainly stop it from growing, the absence of strong unions makes that so much harder,” he said.
Upward Mobility for Union Kids
According to the report, unions advocate for policies that benefit working people, such as minimum wage increases and increased expenditures on schools and public services.
“There is someone who speaks for everyone but for the middle class,” said former U.S. Treasury Secretary Summers, referring to politicians and other national leaders. “Traditionally, the labor movement spoke for the middle class.”
The findings show that children growing up in union households tend to have better outcomes than children from nonunion households, especially when the parents are low skilled. For example, children of non-college-educated fathers earn 28 percent more if their father was in a labor union. This analysis suggests a direct link between unions and economic mobility.
“We need to look at what unions have done historically to help families,” Freeman said.
The report finds that there are direct effects that a parent’s union membership may have on their children. For example, union workers make more money than comparable nonunion workers, known as the “union premium.” As such, offspring of union parents benefit. Also, union jobs may be more stable and predictable, which could produce a more stable living environment for children, who are more likely to have health insurance as a result of their parents’ family plans.
New Organizing Models Needed
According to the report, a union presence potentially helps all children since nonunion workers often experience wage increases due to the gains negotiated by their union colleagues. Still, resistance to union organizing is prevalent among public- and private-sector workplaces.
“I think, no one could argue that the assistance to resistance of unionization during Republican administrations has not been successfully offset by anything that has happened during Democratic administrations,” said Summers.
“That has contributed in an important way to the decline of private-sector unionism.”
Summers pointed to education policies surrounding charter schools as an example of ill-conceived public policy that used taxpayer dollars to serve only a privileged few.
“There are never going to be enough charter schools for one-quarter of kids let alone for all kids,” he said. “This is not a credible response to the challenges of the economy in 2015.”
In addition, outdated organizing models that have “not fully adapted to the changing nature of the workforce,” are also keeping union membership down, said Summers.
“It is a workforce in which there are more people who work flexible schedules, [where] workers think of themselves as working in partnership with employers, and where there are more pink collar and white collar workers than blue collar,” he said. “There has not been full adaptation on the part of those seeking to organize to all those realities."