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Pre-K Teachers Are on Food Stamps After 10 Years Without Raise

By Amy Zimmer | December 29, 2015 7:00am
 An image from one of the seven early childhood education centers in East Harlem run by Union Settlement. The organization along with roughly 45 others wrote a letter to Mayor de Blasio recently asking for higher wages for its workers.
An image from one of the seven early childhood education centers in East Harlem run by Union Settlement. The organization along with roughly 45 others wrote a letter to Mayor de Blasio recently asking for higher wages for its workers.
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Union Settlement

BROOKLYN — After nearly three decades on the job, Debra Johnson, an assistant Pre-K teacher at a city-funded early learning center, earns an annual income of $27,000 — or $13.94 an hour — about $3,000 less than assistant teachers with the same degree would earn in a public school in their first year.

Johnson, 50, pays nearly half her take-home in rent for her East New York studio and is currently more than $2,000 in debt on credit card bills, since she often is forced to charge other needs like phone, food and transit.

Both she and the teacher’s aide in her class — who earns $11.79 an hour and is on food stamps to support her children — earn less than the $15 per hour wage guidelines established for the fast food industry that Mayor Bill de Blasio supported, and far less than their Education Department pre-K counterparts.

“They’re making so much more money, and we’re doing the same work, going to the same workshops,” said Johnson, who teaches at Bushwick’s Life Audrey Johnson Learning Center, who has not seen a raise in a decade, yet has been forced to pay more for health care.

A growing number of early childhood educators are being forced to go on public assistance to make ends meet — even as de Blasio touts his administration's prioritizing of universal pre-K for the city.

"Everyone knows my one true love is pre-K," de Blasio told reporters during a roundtable event Dec. 21. "I care about a lot of issues, but this is the one that I really wanted to make sure we did right."

But the mayor's "tale of two cities" income inequality hasn't lifted up many of the early childhood staffers who have come looking for help paying their rent or getting onto public assistance, according to Michelle Paige, director of seven centers and a network of home based providers for East Harlem’s Union Settlement Association — the city’s 10th largest early childhood education provider.

“All of the staff is feeling defeated and overlooked,” Paige said. “They’re swallowing their pride and having to apply for food stamps or rent subsidies.”

Page said she’s seen an increased number of her educators and support staff forced to apply for the services her organization provides.

“As a director, it’s important to address the equity and parity issue. But from my perspective, it goes deeper," she said. "It’s about respect. You have staff coming to work every day working hard. But they’re getting the same salary as 10 years ago.”

Educators at these city-funded community-based organizations work longer days and don’t have summers off. Yet, their starting salaries are between 9 to 38 percent lower than DOE teachers. They've been without a raise in 10 years as they wait for a new contract.

Many earn poverty-level wages and rely on public assistance to stay afloat, program directors said.

Some of their workers walk long distances because they can’t afford MetroCards. Some run out of money for food at the end of their pay period. And some can’t keep up with rent and end up temporarily homeless, advocates say.

“The low pay scale prevents us from attracting the best teachers, increases staff turnover, creates low employee morale, and as a consequence harms the children we are all dedicated to serve,” wrote a coalition of 45 of these EarlyLearn providers in a recent letter to the mayor.

Advocates tried to repair the damage by asking de Blasio to pay their workers fairly, citing some stark facts from a survey of their workforce: roughly 61 percent of the staffers at these centers have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level; 17 percent receive food stamps; and 55 percent of them or their children receive Medicaid.


► Mayor's Pre-K Push Takes Qualified Teachers From Needy Students: Critics

► City Pays Preschool Workers 'Poverty Level' Wages

► Directors at City Funded Pre-K Programs Earn Less Money Than Their Teachers

The coalition asked de Blasio for a lump sum retroactive payment for lost wages; salaries and benefits on par with those of similarly-situated public school employees, including step increases based on tenure; and full funding for employee health insurance.

De Blasio hasn't responded.

Their demands came on the heels of another letter, signed by more than 100 advocacy groups, urging the mayor to address the salary disparity of workers at the early childhood education centers.

De Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell released a statement saying the mayor's office looks "forward to continue working with providers and educators to make sure parents continue to have strong, high-quality options for their children."

Some pre-K teachers did get raises, he noted.

But Johnson said that raise — which was awarded to her head teacher but not to her — was "another slap in the face."

“I felt horrible. I couldn’t believe it,” Johnson said of de Blasio's bonus to head teachers at early childhood center Pre-K classes for 4-year-olds.

“Once again, they’re not giving us a break when we’re in the same classroom," she continued. "We’re doing everything we can for these children.”