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Preschool Workers' Fight Over Raises Threatens to Tear Their Union Apart

By Amy Zimmer | August 31, 2016 2:54pm
 Students learn about rhythm at a city-funded preschool on the West Side.
Students learn about rhythm at a city-funded preschool on the West Side.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

MANHATTAN — Workers at hundreds of city-funded pre-schools serving low-income New York families are expected to vote Wednesday night on a new contract after 10 years without a raise — pitting union bosses against workers who say the proposal leaves them scraping by.

A proposed four-year contract for members of the Day Care Local 205 of the DC 1707 union, which covers everyone from teachers and teaching assistants to book keepers, cooks and custodians, is tearing the union apart.

The negotiating team sees it as a victory, since it means the salaries of these teachers will go up as much as 27 percent over the next several years.

But critics say the new contract makes teachers wait 4 years to get the same rate of pay as their peers in the city-funded Pre-K program. Incremental pay raises for other staffers does little to address existing issues at these day care centers, where workers are getting poverty-level wages, often needing food stamps or other assistance to get by.

“After 10 years of no raises, the wages being offered to most staff is 2 percent or the minimum wage — whichever is higher. This is not a raise,” said Betty Mendez, an assistant teacher for 11 years in East Harlem, who sits on the union’s board.

She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with her elderly father, who is on Social Security, since she can’t afford to live alone on her $28,000 annual salary.

“I can’t even afford to live in low-income housing on my own,” she said.

“You can make more money in McDonalds,” added Mendez, who said she plans to stop working in preschools if the contract is ratified. "I call myself the ‘working homeless.’ If my father dies tomorrow, I couldn’t survive.”

She added, “When I started, we had full benefits and pensions. We had sick time and vacation time — and we need more than the standard sick time of 20 days because we get sickness from the children. Yes, the salaries were always low, but we had great benefits.”

But advocates for the contract, which has taken 2 years to negotiate — say the contract is fair, and claim that voting no is tantamount to a strike.

Executive director Victoria Mitchell called a special meeting with members as a work-around to the executive board, which rejected the terms.

Board members meanwhile complained of a limited health care plan, an inferior pension plan for new members and for seeing wages barely increase for many.

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 lifeline for many working families.

Stagnant and low salaries, however, have made it hard for these centers to prevent staff turnover and build a more experienced workforce. Most of the workers at these centers haven't seen a raise in a decade — except the certified teachers who lead Pre-K for All classes for 4-year-olds that are part of the city’s pre-K expansion.

Those teachers now start out earning about $50,000 a year, while their counterparts, many of whom teach in classrooms right next door, are earning about $39,000 and won’t see salary parity until the end of the contract, in 2020.

Larry Cary, the general counsel for 1707, who represented the union over the past two years of negotiations, said the contract helps resolve dire issues like health care, pension and gives “significant” raises for many, like a teacher’s assistant with a high school diploma now making $24,000, who will make $37,000 by the contract’s end.

With health care, for instance, due to changes made under the Bloomberg administration to the EarlyLearn contracts that these centers have, employees were on the hook to pay more. As a result, about 1,700 day care workers out of 3,200 could not afford health insurance.

This plan, Cary said, will give workers tiers to opt into, with the lowest cost one enabling staffers once again to get coverage.

With the pension — that is shared with cultural workers at museums — the workers must agree to the contract, he said, or risk seeing their pensions cut since they would miss the deadline to add money to the fund. Their pensions had taken a big hit because of the stock market and because nearly 1,500 day care workers left the system under changes made during the Bloomberg era.

Cary said one of the biggest wins is a $1 million fund with the city to do training and professional development that could help workers take courses and upgrade their certifications as a way to work up the career ladder.

“Is the contract perfect? No, there’s never been a contract ever negotiated that’s perfect,” Cary said. “But it puts everything back on track.”