By Steve Lemken
In a country where jobs are at a premium, having one in a public school that allows you to buy into a medical benefit package is a pretty good deal, right? Sure, if you overlook that paying for the benefits and taxes on the salary may leave you with a net of zero take home pay.
It’s an all-too-common story and it’s the one facing Kathy Meltsakos, a special education paraprofessional working in northeast Massachusetts, hard by the Atlantic. She lives on the same street she grew up on and has worked the schools she attended years ago, bringing a deep knowledge of the generations of people living in and around her town into that work.
Education support professionals like Meltsakos and the rest of America’s workers are doing their best to weather today’s economy. But consider the numbers.
Initially earning $13.74 for a 35-hour week with the Pentucket schools, Meltsakos paid 20 percent of her insurance, which was manageable, and she did that for 10 years until laid off in June 2010. While looking for work she received unemployment benefits. She was later rehired by another district at a lower pay rate, with five less hours, and with a higher contribution for her healthcare.
“I was placed at the bottom of the scale at $10.74 an hour for a 30-hour week. After taxes, I paid 60 percent of my medical insurance. My pay stubs from February to June 24 (the end of the school year) show no net take home pay since February. Oh – and the insurance rates went up in May.”
By April she was frustrated with no take home pay and knew she had to get a second job. “My husband is doing everything he can but we have kids in college and of course the regular bills to pay. I tried a pizza shop, then found work with a discount store, twenty hours a week during school, and a few more now that school is out. They pay a little more per hour but no benefits.” For the summer she landed a job with special ed kids for 20 hours a week at $14 an hour.
“I’m not the only ESP worker in the position of working two or three jobs to try to make ends meet,” Meltsakos said. “We are not looking for a free ride. But we have to question a system that forces workers in any profession to stitch together several pay streams to make ends meet. It can get debilitating. I check my life at the school door and am upbeat and positive because some days, I’m the only happy face those kids see. What is that worth to society?”
Meltsakos is not shy discussing economic facts, having been a local Massachusetts Teacher Association leader for 11 years. She served on her local bargaining team three times and currently serves as an MTA board member representing ESPs and teachers at the state level. She is also a graduate of the 2011 NEA ESP Leaders for Tomorrow program.
These days she works with students in the lower grades. She has worked with high school age students with special needs and would go back to them if a position opened in her district.
“This work is my career,” she says with pride. “I know what I’m doing and am good at what I do. Don’t get me wrong, I learn every day.” When asked about the economics of the job, she doesn’t beat around the bush. “Yes. It should pay better. We have a ways to go on that score. A lot of educating and organizing and bargaining is going to have to get done before any fair salary changes happen.”
Meltsakos has come to the conclusion that she, and ESPs and other education employees, must talk more with neighbors, lawmakers and others about the economics of work and home, living wages and what public school workers do at work.
“My thinking is that we need to speak more about family, community and business priorities, the work that we do and its worth to society. I think our neighbors should know what we are getting paid to educate and care for their children. I think they should know just about every penny gets plowed back into the community in the form of taxes, house payments and rent, buying food and clothes and all the rest. Just like the rest of the community. I want to see all of us succeed.”
Warming to the subject on her mind, Meltsakos said, “We’re taught from an early age not to talk a whole lot about earnings and comparing our salaries. It’s not ‘polite’. Well, we’ve had about thirty years of being polite about work and paychecks and look where that has got us.”
Meltsakos admits, “These are big issues. They can get complicated. But putting these kinds of conversations off and keeping our noses to the grindstone isn’t getting us out of this hole our state and our country finds itself in.”
“I think we have to start talking to a lot more people. Educating. Organizing. It won’t be easy, but it is better than doing the same thing over and over and getting the same result. Let’s start talking. Then we can make plans and take action.” (You can do just that by signing up to volunteer in the 2011 and 2012 campaigns for public education at EducationVotes.org.)
Meanwhile, Meltsakos will return to that job in September with a 55-cent an hour increase – and an increase in the cost of her medical benefits.