Occupational and Physical Therapists who work at the Department of Education have chosen to forgo what they believed were minimal raises in order to achieve parity with other staff members who work with students with disabilities by voting against the United Federation of Teachers contract that was ratified Nov. 2.
Though 87 percent of the 90,000 UFT members supported the deal, just 36 percent of Occupational and Physical Therapists voted in favor of it. About half of the 2,500 non-pedagogical employees cast ballots, with 796 voting against the agreement, according to the American Arbitration Association. Employees in these titles will not receive the planned 7.5 percent raise and other provisions in the 43-month pact.
Nurses, who are under the same bargaining unit and overwhelmingly supported the contract, will also not receive the raises. It was unclear what steps were available to them in seeking better terms.
A Widening Gap
Occupational and Physical Therapists start off making $68,155 a year, which is comparable to Speech Teachers, who have similar duties but are considered pedagogues and share the same contract as Teachers. But once they reach top salary, the gap widens, according to several education staff members who spoke with The Chief. The non-pedagogical staff earn a base top salary of over $97,000—which would have increased to $105,000 under the new contract—about $22,000 less than the maximum base pay for Teachers.
Another difference was that Speech Teachers with a master’s degree received an education differential of about $7,000, while Occupational and Physical Therapists with the same qualifications got $1,505.
“This has been an issue we’ve been fighting for years,” said Occupational Therapist Hannah Fleury, who voted against the contract. “We’re willing to take the risk to show that we’re serious.”
Marilyn Rosario, who has worked as an Occupational Therapist for eight years, said that she and her colleagues were “very upset” when they saw the pact’s terms.
“I don’t think they realize how many of us take second jobs,” she said.
‘Work Warrants Parity’
Judith Loebl, who has worked as a Physical Therapist at the DOE for 16 years, said that the work the therapists did was important because they helped students who had disabilities that impaired their education stay on track.
“We work with the most-vulnerable students. It’s not fair to be treated as second-class citizens,” she said.
While the therapists argued that they earned less than Speech Teachers who performed similar duties, they noted that the Teachers had burdens they didn’t because they were considered pedagogues, including being observed and creating lesson plans. In order to become pedagogues, the State Legislature would have to reclassify the therapists.
In addition to the lower pay scale and smaller differential, the staff members mentioned a $5,000 bonus Speech Teachers with a Speech Language Pathologist license began earning in 2016 for using their license for Medicaid reimbursement services. Though the union argued that Occupational and Physical Therapists should receive the additional compensation, too, the state Public Employment Relations Board found that because the license was required for the therapists, they were not entitled to the bonus.
Don’t Get Leave Benefit
Some of the workers also lamented that the contract didn’t address the fact that some OTs and PTs do not qualify for the benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act because they were 37 hours shy of the annual 1,250-hour requirement to use the benefit.
Occupational Therapist Melissa Williams said she was “pleasantly surprised” to hear that 64 percent of those who voted wanted to fight for a better deal.
“The raises don’t even keep up with inflation. For 2 percent, I can hold out,” she said, referring to the first of three increases that would have taken effect Feb. 14, 2019.
The city has argued that the employees earned far more than Occupational and Physical Therapists at other city agencies, according to the union. Ms. Loebl, who previously worked at the old Health and Hospitals Corporation, noted that in other agencies those jobs were contract positions and couldn’t be compared in regards to salary.
She added that though some members were worried about ending up with a worse deal, “I wouldn’t say there’s a whole lot of regret.”
A Differing View
But Brian Muni, who has been working as an Occupational Therapist for 25 years and voted in favor of the pact, called rejecting the terms “short-sighted and foolish.”
“It’s a pretty grim situation,” he said. “We don’t know how long it’s going to take before the city renegotiates.”
He said that becoming pedagogues was a necessary step to address the parity issues.
“I wasn’t in favor of the contract because it was a good contract, I was in favor of it because we are in a much-worse position than we were before,” he said. “I think had we ratified the contract, we could be in a position to move forward, but we’re not. And that’s a shame.”
A spokeswoman for the union said that it was working with the chapter representing the therapists but would not comment on negotiations.
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