Last month, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers ratified a new contract with the city’s Department of Education that provides a big wage increase for union-represented employees, which starts on Feb. 14. That made news, but this got less attention: the contract that wasn’t ratified.
That one covers school nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and supervisors of nurses and therapists. The UFT reported that most of the 282 school nurses who cast ballots voted to ratify, but 64 percent of the 1,251 occupational therapists and physical therapists who cast ballots voted no.
Why? Here’s a big reason: They make far less at the top of the pay scale than do colleagues, including speech pathologists in New York City, and their working conditions, they say, are unacceptable for children.
This post is an open letter written by the people behind a new group called OTs and PTs For A Fair Contract. The missive is addressed to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.
Dear Chancellor Carranza and Mayor de Blasio,
On February 14th, nearly 115,000 employees of the New York City Department of Education represented by the United Federation of Teachers will commence to work under a newly ratified contract agreement with the city. Notably, 3,000 occupational and physical therapists (OTs and PTs) who serve students with disabilities will not. We overwhelmingly voted to reject the terms brought by the city and to remain working under an expired contract until a fair agreement can be reached. Voting yes may have won us minor cost of living and longevity increases but it would have cost us our dignity. We could not accept what was initially on the table. We hope this letter persuades you to support a bolder, more equitable contract.
Publicly employed OTs and PTs in most major cities including Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Boston earn the same as teachers and other professionals who serve students in Special Education. OTs and PTs in at least 23 districts across New York state have parity with other school professionals. New York City is a glaring exception.
At the top of the pay scale, OTs and PTs who work for the DOE earn $27,000 less per year and have far fewer benefits than our counterparts in the speech therapy, social work, counseling and school psychology departments. Like our colleagues, we are highly trained practitioners. We must graduate at a Masters level or higher to serve NYC’s students.
But unlike our colleagues, we receive lower compensation and are excluded from receiving benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act and the Teachers’ Retirement System. Our existing contract does not allot us planning time and only allows us a half-hour, unpaid lunch. Making matters worse, a significant portion of OTs and PTs do not have a designated space or sufficient materials to conduct therapy.
Why we voted NO
While we may be accustomed to these conditions and understand their systemic and historic origins, we do not enjoy them. Tolerating them is a challenge when we read headlines announcing gratuitous overspending in the millions on hotels and trips by district officials.
Moreover, our working conditions are in contradiction with the expectations that parents and school administrators have of us and especially what our students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) deserve. We are expected to provide high-quality service despite a lack of space, resources and respect. We are expected to strategize with and support an array of stakeholders including teachers, students and parents. We are expected to maintain our state-regulated professional licenses by regularly attending accredited continuing education courses. Not only are we responsible for daily IEP documentation, we must also comply with Medicaid billing requirements which enable the city to receive billions of dollars in compensation for our services. Our ingenuity, dedication and positive relationships with school communities serve us well in surmounting the systemic barriers to providing the quality of interventions we pride ourselves in.
It saddens us that when it comes to duties and expectations, OTs and PTs have parity with other related service providers; yet, when it comes to compensation, resources and respect there is disparity. A similar duality characterizes accountability and equality throughout the system.
Take, for instance, how the financing of educational opportunities varies sharply across the city according to the wealth within a given school zone. That leaves many students and schools faring much worse than others. At the same time, a uniform set of standardized exams are administered across the state year after year to rank and sort student academic performance. Why is there not uniformity and standardization when it comes to economic investment in educational opportunities and resources?
Like our union brothers and sisters in Los Angeles who are striking for the schools their students deserve, we recognize that our working conditions are our students learning conditions. Our students deserve therapists who have adequate access to resources and space. Hallways, closets, and basement offices with chronically leaking ceilings do not qualify. A recent claim that special education is broken points to the urgency of taking necessary measures to guarantee the rights of students with disabilities are honored. To be sure, the NYC DOE has made genuine strides in closing gaps in mandated services and ensuring those services are held to a certain criteria. More work is to be done.
What we want
We are not asking for the moon. We are only asking for the same contractual benefits and resources that our counterparts in the special education department are granted. With a projected city budget surplus of as much as $4 billion, our request for parity, resources and respect is not unreasonable. It is simply business as usual for most major cities and should by in NYC too because it just makes sense.
We have great respect for how you have championed progressive educational policies that will make meaningful differences in the lives of the city’s most disadvantaged students. Your leadership in establishing a 3-K program, desegregating schools, addressing the racist acceptance criteria of specialized high schools, tackling homophobia and transphobia and pledging to make more buildings accessible to students of all abilities is worthy of admiration. As you continue to pursue “equity and excellence for all” we hope you consider how renegotiating a fair contract with OTs and PTs is another important step toward that vision.
OTs and PTs For A Fair Contract