A tale of two paraprofessional contracts

Narrowly averting a strike, paraprofessionals in Lawrence, Mass., have come away with a great new contract that provides transformational wage increases of up to $10 an hour, along with stipends that count toward their pensions.

Lawrence, Mass. paraprofessionals

The Lawrence Federation of Paraprofessionals voted to approve the three-year contract last month after negotiating since January. Their contract had expired at the end of June, but they persisted and achieved victory through a campaign that brought together hundreds of educators, elected officials and community members to demand a living wage for support staff, including classroom assistants, lunchtime monitors and others.

“Our union, almost 450 members strong, sent a very clear message that when we unite as workers, we can win the wages and working conditions we all deserve,” says local President Suzanne Suliveras, a crisis aide at a therapeutic school for children with exceptional needs. “We are now in a position where our members can focus on their jobs educating the students of Lawrence rather than how they will feed their families.”

For members who are overwhelmingly local residents, parents and women of color, this historic contract creates more educational stability for students, greater support for families and better pay and working conditions for staff. For example, some of the district’s most highly experienced support staff will see almost $10-per-hour pay increases, from less than $20 an hour to nearly $30 an hour.

The agreement raises the minimum wage for instructional paras from $14.79 to $21 an hour. It lifts the maximum wage from $22.44 to $31.83 an hour by the end of the contract. In addition, lunch paras who maintain their certification will receive hourly raises and an annual stipend of $5,500 that counts toward their pension. “They kept wanting to throw all these bonuses at us, but to me, a one-time bonus doesn’t mean anything,” Suliveras says. “It’s just a Band-Aid.”

“For the first time in over two decades, we are seeing some of our lowest-paid workers get a real raise,” says Juan Santiago, a lunch monitor and negotiation team member. “One of our lunch aides has been employed by LPS for 25 years and was only making $16.64 an hour. After this agreement, between the increase in hourly wages plus the new stipend, this member will see an almost $9,500 increase to her annual wages in the first year alone.”

“We finally achieved wage justice!” exclaims Maria Bones, a 29-year veteran parent liaison and union activist. “This outcome will be life-changing.”

Paraprofessionals contribute an incalculable amount to their students and classrooms, Suliveras says. Students are always their biggest concern. Yet, administrators may not realize that without paras, students would have nowhere to obtain the services they need. It is parents and support staff who are most aware of how important paras are to everyone in the school community.

Short-staffed and shortchanged

Down the road in New Bedford, Mass., paraprofessionals rallied for a living wage on Nov. 14, bringing two years of campaigning to a head in advance of what they hope will be a fruitful mediation session on Dec. 7. The rally drew families and elected officials to join the paras.

New Bedford, Mass. paraprofessionals

Jill Zangao, president of the New Bedford Federation of Paraprofessionals, led the protest after yet another valiant attempt to negotiate fair terms for a three-year contract at a time when the school district is awash in federal funding and can expect even more money from a new state millionaire’s tax that Massachusetts voters passed on Nov. 8. The paras’ previous contract expired at the end of July.

The district expects givebacks but the time for compromise on wages is over, Zangao says. She points out that while the district budgeted $9.66 million for para salaries, the union’s proposal would cost the district only $8.1 million—and yet the district is still balking.

The union believes that with its shortage of special education paraprofessionals, the New Bedford district may be violating federal law on special ed students’ individualized education programs, which dictate the levels of support students must receive. Being so short-staffed poses safety concerns and must be addressed immediately by bringing the number of special ed paras to at least 380 districtwide. The system now employs about 300 paras.

“We and our students are in crisis due to the near-poverty-level wages we’re paid; the unsustainable, crushing working conditions we face; and the acute staffing shortages,” the union says.

Paraprofessionals work quietly behind the scenes, Zangao observes, so they are frequently overlooked. A win for noninstructional paras or lunch monitors would be to boost starting pay from $14.34 to at least $18 an hour. Decent wages show respect, Zangao says: Paras remain “undervalued, underpaid and under-respected.”

New Bedford paraprofessionals deserve a significant wage increase, agrees their state federation president. “So many hold second jobs in order to simply live,” AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos says. “Rent is too high. Fuel and food costs have risen for us all, but it is felt the most by people who are working in a career that has been traditionally underfunded. To attract and retain staff, New Bedford needs to step it up! Our paraprofessionals have other employment choices in such a competitive environment. They choose to stay in our schools because they love working with children. It should not be a sacrifice to follow their desired career path.”

Bottom line, Kontos says: “The money is available. The mayor needs to equate respect with a good wage.”

[Annette Licitra]