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City Pays Preschool Workers 'Poverty Level' Wages

By Amy Zimmer | September 23, 2015 7:43am
 Children reading at Leggett Memorial Early Childhood Center where Shariah Bottex works. It is one of Union Settlement's seven East Harlem early education centers.
Children reading at Leggett Memorial Early Childhood Center where Shariah Bottex works. It is one of Union Settlement's seven East Harlem early education centers.
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Union Settlement

NEW YORK CITY — Teaching assistants and aides who work at city-funded early childhood programs that serve low-income working families across the boroughs earn less than $15 an hour, records show.

Many of these workers, who are part of the city's Early Learn program, are asking why Mayor Bill de Blasio — who supported the $15 an hour wage for fast food workers — hasn't helped their sector, which he has championed as being critical to the city's success.

"We are not paying a living wage to the assistant teachers or teacher’s aides, and many of them have to rely on food stamps and other public assistance," said David Nocenti, Executive Director of Union Settlement, which runs seven early childhood centers in East Harlem.

"The mayor is a great champion for early childhood education, and the salaries of the teaching staff should demonstrate the value we place on their work," Nocenti said. "If fast food workers deserve $15 per hour, then surely those teaching our most vulnerable children every day deserve significantly more.”

There are more than 400 centers across the city serving nearly 40,000 infants and toddlers for 10 hours a day, 12 months a year, providing a life line for many working families.

But their staffs haven't seen a raise in a decade, and the low salaries have made it hard for centers to prevent staff turnover and build a more experienced workforce.

Shariah Bottex, an assistant teacher at an East Harlem preschool, says she feels like she's laying the foundation for the future of the city, teaching toddlers about sharing, saying "please" and "thank you" and helping develop their morals.

But as she pays to finish her bachelor's degree this year, the 22-year-old has no choice but to live with her mom, a police officer, and sister in Ridgewood.

"I'm working with children and protecting them. We're doing so much for so little pay," said Bottex, whose center is run by Union Settlement. "Imagine if my mom wasn't so supportive. I probably would be in a shelter."

An assistant teacher without a degree earns the equivalent of $12.41 an hour and a teacher aide earns $11.72 an hour at these programs, according to salary data from the Day Care Council of New York, which is an umbrella group for many of the city-funded early childhood centers.

An assistant teacher with a bachelor's degree, for instance, earns about $27,000 a year, or $13.94 an hour.

For someone with this qualification, working in a public school or a Department of Education pre-K program would be more attractive, since those assistants start out earning nearly $4,500 more and have a more desirable schedule, since school runs only 6 hours and 20 minutes a day, 10 months a year. 

The DOE teachers also get raises every year, unlike those at the community-based centers.

Because of this, many preschool directors are seeing an exodus of their most qualified teachers to public schools and other programs with DOE contracts.

Many Early Learn providers were incensed that teachers at DOE-run programs earn so much more than they do at the nonprofits with city contracts, and that DOE teachers got a new contract and raise before the Early Learn workers, who are part of the DC 1707 union and have been waiting a decade for a new contract.

"As a society we are finally realizing that early education is the most important stage in a child’s social and cognitive development. Educate children effectively before they’re 5-years-old or you risk having them fall behind early and almost never catch up," said Jim Matison, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, which runs five preschool centers for low-income families in Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights and Brownsville.

"With this in mind, how do we justify paying so many preschool teachers wages that often don’t break the poverty level?"

Instead of allowing teachers to focus on educating kids, they may be more consumed by how they'll pay for food and rent and repay their students loans, he said.

The fast food industry's $15 an hour wage is going to be phased in over the course of several years with those workers only making $10.50 an hour by this year's end, city officials pointed out. Also, earlier this year, the administration announced a pay raise for workers in the nonprofit sector, like Early Learn workers, which will in the coming months, bring the lowest paid workers up to a "living wage" of $11.50 an hour, retroactive to July 1.

(According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, New York City's living wage for one adult should be $14.50.)

"The mayor has taken multiple steps to make sure the educators and childcare workers in our system earn a fair wage they can live on," said mayoral spokesman Wiley Norvell. "That’s why we boosted salaries in programs affiliated with Pre-K for All, and it’s why the mayor announced earlier this year that workers at city-contracted nonprofits would also see their wages rise."

The raise will not, however, do much for workers already earning at least $11.50, so teacher's aides and assistants aren't likely to see much of a salary bump.