Mar. 9—HAVERHILL — Understanding the low wages paid to some Haverhill classroom aides is as easy as reading the shirts on their backs, teachers say.
Those aides are wearing T-shirts bearing signs that protest their wages, as the union tries to get them a raise.
To inform the public of their situation, the school district's Educational Support Professionals — teachers aides known as ESPs — are wearing signs on the backs of black T-shirts that display the amount of pay they currently receive. They wear the shirts to work on Thursdays.
Other T-shirts worn by teachers union members display the phrases "HEA Strong" and "Educators are the Heart of Haverhill." The union has also created cards similar to baseball cards that feature ESPs and statistics such as their pay, said union president Anthony Parolisi.
Parolisi said the ESP job has a high turnover rate and that Haverhill schools have about 25 unfilled ESP positions.
Contract talks that began a year ago with the School Committee continue to drag on, union officials say, and they insist the school district's current offer falls short of bringing the pay of ESPs up to a living wage.
Parolisi said ESPs are essential school employees who work the same hours as teachers and deal with the same student populations, but are not paid a living wage, according to the MIT living wage calculator.
That calculator shows a living wage for a single person with no children is $34,000 per year, but Haverhill's ESPs are paid much less, Parolisi said.
"We polled our ESP members and about one third said they rely on some form of government assistance and an alarming number said they didn't know they qualified and are going to look into it," Parolisi said. "Schools could not function without our highly qualified ESPs to support the needs of all our students."
Over the years, the work of ESPs has evolved, Parolisi said, and they are now involved in small group instruction and providing one-on-one support for special needs students. ESPs are often called upon to act as substitute teachers, he said.
Under the current ESP contract, the starting pay is $19,016 per year for a person with an associate's degree or who has passed the state para professional exam, while a veteran ESP who is at the top of the pay scale after six years receives $22,729 annually, Parolisi said.
Those with 10 to 14 years experience can earn extra longevity pay of $1,000 per year, he said. In years 15 to 19 of an ESP's career, the annual longevity pay increases to $1,200 and after the 20th year it goes to $1,500, he said. ESPs who earn additional college credits and degrees receive more money, he said — lump sums that are paid annually.
"Even an ESP with a bachelor's degree and an active teaching license makes only $21,721 to start and will max out (not including longevity) at $25,763, yet we have very few people who fit that category," Parolisi said.
He said the majority of Haverhill's ESPs are paid between $20,000 and $25,000 annually.
About 185 of the district's ESPs are members of the teachers union, while another 40 to 50 are not union members, Parolisi said. Regardless of union affiliation, all of the district's ESPs do come under the union's bargaining contract, he said.
Parolisi said the School Committee is offering the ESPs a 1.75% raise for the current school year, retroactive to July 1, 2020; 2% for next year; and 1.5% for the following year.
Members of the School Committee bargaining unit said they do not make public the details of ongoing contract negotiations.
"They flatly rejected our request," Parolisi said. "Our last proposal was 2% each year for three years, plus a $4,000 increase as a market correction for the work our ESPs are now asked to do.
"Their (the School Committee's) position is that for ESPs to earn more, they must work harder than they already do, either overtime or summer school," Parolisi said. "Many of them already work overtime and in the summer just to make ends meet, but they never really get there."
Parolisi said School Committee negotiators have proposed eliminating the current ESP longevity pay program by rolling it into the salary scale in steps.
"If this was agreed to, the top step for an ESP with 20 or more years of service, a bachelor's degree and a teaching license would go from $27,464 (including longevity) to $30,699," he said. "Only 15 ESPs (in the Haverhill school district) have these qualifications. Under our proposal, that licensed ESP would be paid $36,557."