The 2022-23 school year got off to a bumpy start with staff shortages across all job categories. Bus driver shortages stranded students for hours, cafeterias scrambled to make enough meals with fewer hands, and paraprofessionals increased their workloads to compensate for missing staff, causing high levels of stress and burnout.
Now as we head into late fall, many schools are still facing shortages of education support professionals (ESPs).
It’s a problem that has persisted since before the pandemic and every district is experiencing it.
“It’s almost the thing you don’t talk about because everyone knows,” David Law, superintendent of the 11,000-student Minnetonka district in Minnesota told Education Week. “It’s sort of like saying it’s hot in Arizona.”
A main factor contributing to the ongoing shortage is that education has become less appealing as a profession. Fewer people want to work in education roles, and that puts more stress on the people who currently have those jobs.
“When you go to do a job that requires five people and you’ve only hired three, it’s a harder job than it would be when it’s fully staffed, which means people coming in are less likely to stay,” Law told Education Week.
Susanna Litwiniak is the head secretary at Moose Pass School in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in Alaska and is the local president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association. Litwiniak has seen how the shortages impact staff and students alike.
“We've had schools that have gone without custodians for months at a time. And you've got teachers filling in, secretaries filling in. Staff have helped in the lunch room because there aren’t enough food service workers,” Litwiniak said.
“It trickles down to the students because the students are trying to learn from a staff that is overworked and tired.”
As president of the union, she has been approached twice by the Director of Planning and Operations about privatizing unfilled custodian positions.
Privatization is not the answer, she insists, and the union will start bargaining for the next contract in January 2024. When they go to the table, they plan to cite the district's inability to hire and retain staff as a rationale for an increase in wages on every step of the salary schedule.
“Looking at our district’s website, there are still 34 support staff positions open. Thirteen of the positions were special education aide positions. So we're looking at intensive needs kids really just not getting what they need,” Litwiniak said.
Some ESPs feel like they can’t take days off because there aren’t enough people to cover for them. If someone in food service needs to take a day off and cannot find a substitute, the rest of the staff will need to fill in, she said.
“We have people who skip doctor's appointments and dentist appointments, the things that people need to do as human beings, because they do not feel like they can take a day off,” Litwiniak said.
ESPs Need a Living Wage
Though there are many reasons for ESP staff shortages, including working conditions, concerns about safety, and a lack of respect, a main reason is they do not make a livable wage, nor are they compensated for their knowledge, education, skills, and experience.
Some support staff have found they can make the same amount (or more) somewhere else.
Nationally, more than a third of ESPs who work full-time earn less than $25,000 a year and 11.7% earn less than $15,000 a year, according to an NEA report. On average, ESPs are making below a living wage in all 50 states.
“Our district is not able to remain competitive as an employer. With inflation being what it is, most employers have seen that they can't hire people unless they raise wages,” Litwiniak said. “A person can go to McDonald's and get a job starting at $16 an hour. That's what we start our food service managers at.”
She cautions that the problem will continue unless ESPs, who she knows love their jobs and feel rewarded by their work with students, are valued and compensated fairly.
“When you take a person who loves their job and feels great about what they're doing, and then ask them to go above and beyond year after year without extra compensation, you're going to lose them,” Litwiniak said. “It's not just that you can't recruit people, it's that you're not doing what you need to do to retain people ... We have to keep the good people that we have and we're not going to be able to keep them if we can't staff the buildings appropriately.”