I am running for President of the Delaware State Education Association. One of our local leaders who is President of the para-educators (classroom aides) group in her school district asked me: “I have a question for you—something near and dear to my heart. If you become President of DSEA, what would you do to help ESP’s obtain the living wage that we so rightfully deserve?”
Let me give some background before I get to my simple and sincere answer to this all-important question. Some folks might not even know about this issue. However, if you already are well-informed about the issue of LIVING WAGE, or you’re in a hurry—skip down to the bottom—my response to the question is beneath the line of asterisks.
Since a Para-President asked the question, I am going to focus most of my comments on the situation for para-educators in public schools in this state.
Educational Support Professional (ESP) is a DSEA member category that includes para-educators (also known as para-professionals in some districts), food service workers, bus drivers, secretaries, and custodians—employees whose work is critical to the smooth and successful functioning of our schools.
ESP folks have a serious problem. It is difficult to fathom that here in Delaware we have many full-time state employees whose families exist year after year on less than a living wage. We actually have full-time public school ESP employees whose annual job earnings are at or close to the poverty levels established by the federal government: currently set at $14,570 for a single parent and child; $22,050 for a family of four (last updated in April, 2010).
In some cases, support professionals are barely able to live in the communities they serve, or they earn so little that they actually qualify for government assistance. Do you find this a shocking fact? I do. Some of our colleagues, working by our sides each and every school day, may need food stamps or other government services just to get by.
Like in other public school jobs, the major portion of the ESP salary comes from the state. So, all ESP positions have the state salary as a base. However, there is significant variation among district supplements. Some districts may add nothing or very little to the state portion–others are more generous.
For example, in one NCC school district, the starting salary for a service aide is $15,020 from the state, plus a multiplier of 1.54 from the district; an instructional aide receives a bit more: $17,670 plus $2525. In some districts, starting salaries are even lower–just the state portion or a meager district add-on. These very salaries place these employees well within the range of earnings at or close to the poverty level, especially for a single parent.
[Current minimum wage is set at $7.25. If you do the math, you can see that $15,020 for 7.5 hours a day for 185 days is not all that much above minimum wage earnings. Folks: We are talking about full-time adult workers here, heads of household, the family breadwinner!]
Not only are starting salaries surprisingly low for many of our ESP positions, but even after years and years of service, very little salary gain can be seen. It is shocking to realize that after working for as many as 25 years in these positions, the salaries of the two different paras cited above will top out at $23,599 and $27,646 respectively—not even close to doubling their starting salaries—AFTER 25 YEARS OF SERVICE!
We have many employees in the public education sector who are forced to work a second or even a third job, just to keep their families afloat. This was true two years ago before the economy took a nose-dive, and it is certainly more true today. Any misfortune, big or small can become a catastrophe when you are forced to live this close to the edge, all the while going to work every day and working a full number of hours as a para-professional, custodian, food service worker, school bus driver, or school secretary.
So, what can be done to try to remedy this situation? NEA, along with other organizations, has recognized the need to correct this situation. Several years ago they began a nationwide initiative to push for what they call an APPROPRIATE LIVING WAGE. DSEA has done the same here in Delaware, making “a living wage for all” one of the key goals of its legislative agenda. A few years ago, it looked like we were making some headway with this campaign with both Governor Minner and the Legislature. And then the financial crisis hit.
Recent news indicates that recovery from this recession may not come for 5-10 years. O.K. But, in my opinion, this is not the time to fall back. This is not the time to refrain from pursuing the goal to raise all starting salaries to what would be considered a livable salary.
A living wage differs from one region to another and is based upon a budget analysis of what it takes to maintain a household in that locale at a fairly standard, but minimum level—including costs for food, housing, child care, transportation, healthcare, taxes, and “other necessities.” In Delaware, current estimates for a LIVING WAGE range between $25,000 (in rural Delaware) and $30,000 (in Wilmington/Newark) for a single parent and one child.
DSEA’s current goal is to begin by winning a starting salary of at least $20,000 for all ESP public school employees. That’s not shooting for the moon. However, it does require the cooperation of both entities who set salary levels–the state and local school districts.
So, what can I do to advance this goal when I am elected President of DSEA? What will it take to make this goal a reality?
First of all–it is an embarrassment to me and to others that this situation even exists, with the kinds of wealth and the bounty of resources this state is known for. Dedicated, full-time, working adults should not be forced to try to survive on not much more than teen-agers or part-time workers in other fields make.
As DSEA President, I would make sure that this issue remains a top priority for the entire organization:
• We need to get this topic back on the radar screens of both the Governor and the Legislature—even in these difficult economic times. This effort is not driven by greed nor the desire to take advantage—it is the right thing to do. It is a social justice issue that actually has benefits that can be reaped in other arenas, especially reductions in the numbers of those needing critical government services.
• We need to dispel the myths and misconceptions that are used by others to try to combat LIVING WAGE campaigns.
• We need to renew our own efforts at educating all DSEA members about this critical issue and about ways that all members can help drive this forward. We need the help of everyone for this to succeed.
• For a successful campaign for “a living wage for all” to happen, we need to call on ESP leaders such as this para-President and others to help directly with the campaign.
• We need to bring all Political Action Leaders (PAL) activists up to speed on the campaign and on successful lobbying techniques.
• We need to combine our efforts with those of our Coalition brother and sisters.
• We need to continue to work with key legislators who demonstrate an interest in and are sympathetic to this issue. We need to identify other compassionate stakeholders.
• Additionally, DSEA Career Continuum Task Force groups—one for ESP members and one for teacher-type members—are meeting regularly to discuss other possibilities for changing the ways in which our salaries are structured, providing new career opportunities for both groups, and dealing with pressures from local and national education reformists to include merit pay or pay for performance in future plans.
Thank you for asking the question and for forcing me to think deeply and critically about what we can accomplish in the next few years.
“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen… There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family.” ~Martin Luther King