NYC DOE Teachers Receive Less than Minimum Wage for New Teacher Orientation

School’s back in session next week as scores of new teachers flock to Kings’ Theatre for the beginning of our new teacher orientation week for the DOE.

New Teacher Week will begin with a central in-person event at Kings Theatre, featuring remarks from Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks, followed by two days of professional learning where new teachers report to schools around the city to attend and complete various modules on Zoom and platform called WeLearnNYC.

The problem? New DOE teachers will receive a paltry $51.70 for attending each full day of training. Each of the three days of training will be from 8:30am – 3:30pm, with a 50 minute lunch. That’s 420 minutes per day inclusive of lunch and 370 minutes without lunch.

Yes, you read that correctly, $51.70 per day for attending three 7 hour training days. It’s listed on page 6 of the New Teacher Week FAQ. And a quick skim of Article 8 of the UFT/DOE contract (Section G(1)(h)) confirms the same information. The FAQ document language refers to this as a “stipend”, but I’m not entirely sure how the DOE gets away with paying almost 50% of minimum wage for a mandatory orientation program.

Some quick napkin math: 420 minutes ÷ a $51.70 rate for the entire day of training = approximately $7.39 per hour ($0.12 per minute). I kept lunchtime in my calculation because our contractual workday normally includes a duty-free lunch. Even with factoring out the daily lunch, the hourly rate works out to $8.38 per hour.

No matter how you look at it, these rates are woefully below both the New York City and New York State minimum wage of $15 per hour.

Interested readers might ask (as I myself did) if there are any laws that allow employers to pay new workers less during their training period. I’m not the most knowledgeable when it comes to labor law, but I did find the following excerpt from the Code of Federal Regulations:

(b) Compensation payable for nonproductive hours worked. The parties may agree to compensate nonproductive hours worked at a rate (at least the minimum) which is lower than the rate applicable to productive work. In such a case, the regular rate is the weighted average of the two rates, as discussed in § 778.115 and the employee whose maximum hours standard is 40 hours is owed compensation at his regular rate for all of the first 40 hours and at a rate not less than one and one-half times this rate for all hours in excess of 40. (See § 778.415 for the alternative method of computing overtime pay on the applicable rate.) In the absence of any agreement setting a different rate for nonproductive hours, the employee would be owed compensation at the regular hourly rate set for productive work for all hours up to 40 and at a rate at least one and one-half times that rate for hours in excess of 40.

29 CFR 778.318(b)

To be completely honest, I’m not even sure if this section of the CFR is relevant to training rates, but I’m going to go with the assumption that mandatory orientation sessions would be considered nonproductive hours. If there are any union contract or labor law afficionados reading this post, let me know if you know of any better sources!

There’s no reason for any worker in this city to make less than minimum wage for any function of their job. From what I can tell, the daily training rate has existed since 2008, and I’m surprised that previous cohorts of new teachers haven’t pointed out this egregious oversight in our contract before.

Where’s the Contract Negotiation Survey for Per Diem Members?

It might just be a survey, but little vignettes like this speak volumes about which members our union values.

The UFT is up for a new round of contract negotiations this year, and the 400+ member negotiations committee has had at least one meeting that I know of.

Last week, the UFT sent out a survey to members, asking for preferences on a number of topics, including length of the school day. There was, however, a minor snag with this process — I don’t know of a single dues-paying per diem member who received the survey.

I know, I know, I can hear some of the responses — how some would say it’s such a trivial detail, or perhaps some think that the results of this survey and/or the eventual contract negotiations have no impact on per diem members. On the contrary, I’d argue it’s quite a big deal.

As per diem members, our working conditions are tied to what is negotiated for appointed members. For example, substitute teachers receive a daily prep period and a duty free lunch. Our work day is fixed at 6 hours and 50 minutes (including lunch). When full-time teachers received a yearly 2-3% raise from 2018-2021, I was pleasantly surprised to find that we enjoyed the same increase in the per diem rate. Even if we don’t get benefits like paid holidays or the UFT’s Welfare Fund, some of the most central components of our job are shaped by what comes of the new teacher contract.

Putting aside grandiose reasoning and our paltry benefits, per diem members should have a say and a voice in the contract negotiation because it’s the right thing to do. Every dues-paying member should have a say in something as important as setting priorities for the upcoming contract negotiations. A shortage of substitute teachers and substitute paraprofessionals has been one of the most pressing logistical challenges that the DOE has faced since the pandemic began. Who better to offer insight on per diem workers than the per diem workers themselves?

At the time of writing this post, the recent UFT still elections are still fresh on my mind, as is the case with so many of my brilliant colleagues and union activists who supported the United for Change slate. As abysmal as voter turnout was this year (and historically in general), I can’t shake the feeling that our union caucuses need to do a better job engaging and mobilizing per diem members who are unceremoniously lumped together under the functional category for the purposes of ballot distribution and results.

I’m not sure how much of a difference the per diem member bloc will make in future UFT elections, but it will still be a noticeable chunk of votes for whichever caucus(s) realize that they need to make per diem members feel like a priority and not an afterthought. I don’t think either Unity or United for Change did a particularly good job of it this year. At the same time, I’m still kicking myself for not doing more on my own to organize around the challenges that per diem workers face.

Our struggles do not happen in a vacuum away from other worker struggles within our union. I recently became aware of the growing movement of DOE occupational therapists and physical therapists advocating for a better contract. Members are also becoming more aware of paraprofessional compensation and how woefully inadequate it is with a high COL city like New York City. True worker solidarity and action happens when we support and uplift other workers and show genuine care and awareness for what they’re going through.

Anyone who has known me since I started working for the DOE knows that I love to get on my soapbox about how per diem members of the UFT are treated every day. If there’s one thing I got from working during the pandemic, it’s realizing how integral per diem members to how the DOE functions each and every day. I could lambast the UFT time and time again, but true change really does begin with small, incremental steps.

All of that is to say that there’s a contract negotiation survey going around, and I think it’s pretty crappy that per diem members weren’t included on the mailing list. Per some info that’s been floating around in the UFT Facebook group, survey links shouldn’t be shared with others, as the emails seem to be uniquely generated. The UFT says that anyone who didn’t receive an email should call 212-331-6311 to request a link, and that the deadline to submit the survey is Thursday, May 19.

I often say that I want to see per diem workers better represented by the UFT. Being completely disregarded by my union over something as simple as a survey doesn’t leave the best taste in my mouth.