After years of bargaining, assistant teachers earned their first pay raises since 2009—and fought back against a proposed 8-hour workday.
The assistant teachers, known as araprofessionals, “overwhelmingly” approved a labor contract in a secret ballot vote Thursday at Metropolitan Business School, according to union President Claudine Wilkins-Chambers.
Her union, AFSCME Council 4 Local 3429, represents some 360 to 375 teacher’s aides in New Haven public schools and Head Start pre-kindergarten classrooms. The union had been negotiating for years; the last contract expired July 1, 2010.
The new, five-year contract now passes to the school board and Board of Aldermen for final approval. It includes paying higher health care premiums; giving up longevity payments for newer employees; and receiving 7.5 percent wage increases over five years. It does not include a plank the city had pushed for—extending the workday from six-and-a-half to eight hours.
Wilkins-Chambers greeted union members in Metro’s cafeteria Thursday. She said she doesn’t consider the deal “a good contract,” but “we didn’t lose anything.”
“Based on the economy, it’s the best that we could have gotten,” she said.
For one assistant teacher bogged down with student loans, the contract would represent her first-ever raise since she started working for the school system in 2009. The teacher’s aide (not pictured), who declined to give her name, makes just shy of $19,000 a year for the 9-month, 36-hour-a-week position. A single mom, she’s paying off loans from her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“I need my raise,” she said. She said she reluctantly voted for the contract.
“Am I happy?” she asked rhetorically. Not quite. “If the times weren’t like they were, I would’ve voted ‘no’.” But “you have to sometimes make concessions.”
The union is the third in a series to agree to similar concessions in health care. The pattern began with custodians, whose fate was determined by binding arbitration in 2011. The city clerical union followed suit with a negotiated deal in July.
Like clerical workers and custodians, paraprofessionals will have to enroll in one of four new health care plans, one of which is a high-deductible plan. If they want to keep their current level of benefits, they’ll have to pay higher premiums.
The city has been seeking similar concessions with the rest of its unions. Five unions are currently in contract talks: city managers, police, food service, parks, and the trades. The city stopped negotiating with the public works and fire unions because both sides reached an impasse, according to mayoral Chief of Staff Sean Matteson; those contracts have gone to binding arbitration. Teachers and administrators unions’ contracts don’t expire until 2014; those unions are set to begin negotiations in the summer.
Wilkins-Chambers said one of her union’s top priorities was wage raises. Paraprofessionals, who make between $18,000 and $24,000 per year, haven’t had a raise since July 1, 2009. According to the tentative deal, paraprofessionals would not get retroactive raises. Starting from the date the Board of Aldermen approves the contract, they would get: 3 percent raises for the rest of this fiscal year; a 2 percent raise on July 1, 2013; and a 2.5 percent raise on July 1, 2014. That amounts to 7.5 percent over 5 years.
Workers would not advance any “steps” in pay grade on top of the raises. Those steps have been frozen for years, Wilkins-Chambers said.
Like the city clerical workers, paraprofessionals would give up longevity payments for newer employees. Currently, assistant teachers get a modest annual bonus if they stick around: $325 after five years on the job; $500 after 10 years; $525 after 15; and $575 after 20. The proposed contract eliminates that perk for new workers and those with fewer than five years’ seniority.
“If you haven’t put in five years already, you get no longevity,” Wilkins-Chambers explained.
The contract would not change any work rules.
Going into negotiations, the school district had sought to extend paraprofessionals’ workday from six-and-a-half to eight hours, confirmed schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark. Some schools have already experimented with a longer day. Teachers agreed to extend their hours in certain cases at turnaround schools, but paraprofessionals have no such clause in their contract, which creates a gap in coverage.
Clark said the idea behind extending paraprofessionals’ workday was “to cover the actual school day as it’s evolving,” so paraprofessionals are there when kids arrive as well as when they go home. Wilkins-Chambers said her union successfully fought back against that change.
Unlike with other unions, pensions were not a factor: Paraprofessionals are not part of the city’s defined-benefit pension plan. They pay into a defined-contribution plan.
The school district pays about $9.6 million per year on paraprofessional salaries, according to its budget. A mid-year 3 percent raise would cost the school district roughly another $150,000 this fiscal year.
Wilkins-Chambers said the union was able to hold on to benefits and procure wage raises in a tough economy.
“I don’t consider it a good contract,” but it’s better than the alternative, she said. “We don’t want to go to arbitration. Arbitration is never a good way to go.”
“Naturally we want more money, but that wasn’t happening,” said Hilda Holness, a teachers aide at Conte/West Hills and the union treasurer. Holness, who sat on the union’s negotiating team, said the contract was worth the wait.
“It was the best that we could possibly come up with,” she said.
“We certainly appreciate all the efforts of these workers and appreciate the spirit to which they brought to the negotiations, of being reasonable and professional and doing the discussions at the table,” said COO Clark Friday. “Ultimately we were able to find middle ground, and that’s what’s supposed to happen in a negotiation.”