What is to be Done? Improving Substitute Teacher Working Conditions in the NYC DOE

A fellow substitute teacher recently asked me for my thoughts on how NYC Department of Education substitutes were treated/compensated during the pandemic. Instead of just exchanging a few messages with this person, I thought I’d prepare my thoughts a bit more cogently in this digital space.

I joined the DOE in winter 2020 as a per diem (substitute) teacher. Since then, I’ve held three long-term teaching gigs: 3rd grade, high school math, and as a stint as a building sub where I got to facilitate activities for K-5 students while teachers took their lunch and prep periods. I got to explore websites like Chrome Music Lab and code.org with a range of elementary school students, and we had a pretty great time.

I want to start by being completely honest. I don’t think that substitute teaching should be anyone’s primary source of income, at least for an extended period of time. The demand for substitute teachers is delicate, and I don’t think that the abundant opportunities that have been available since the pandemic began are at all indicative of what substitutes should expect over the next few years as things return to ✨normal✨.

I subbed for about a year before I realized that 1) I really enjoyed working in New York City public schools and 2) The financial reality of subbing (and the lack of benefits) was not tenable for me, nor is it sustainable for many substitutes. That being said, I don’t know everyone’s financial situation, aspirations, etc. I know some substitute teachers who are happy to supplement their household income while they raise a kid or for whom subbing is purely extra spending money. I’ve connected with subs who have aspirations in music, art, and other creative outlets. Some subs are licensed educators biding their time while they try to break into their first teaching position in NYC public schools.

So onto the compensation piece. I won’t completely out my political orientation in this digital space, but I firmly believe that people shouldn’t have to worry if they’ll have access to healthcare, healthy food, humble recreational activities, etc. Unfortunately, we’re quite a ways from what I believe our system of governance should look like. In the meantime, we’re stuck with whatever scraps compensation the DOE decides to throw our way. Accordingly, I’m going to be reasonable in my assessment what can actually be done within how the system currently operates.

Per diem subs get a set daily stipend of $199.27 for each day of service rendered to a school. Our contractual workday is 6 hours and 50 minutes, inclusive of a duty-free lunch. Doing some quick napkin math, the occasional per diem rate works out to somewhere in the ballpark of $27/hour. There is technically a higher-rate of pay available to subs on long-term assignments. It typically works out to about $100 more per day — about how much a new teacher would make for a day of service. I mention this long-term status with a caveat that they’re nearly impossible to get due to how subs earn them.

There are two kinds of long-term status that are generally available to per diem subs: Z-status and Q-status. Z-status mean that a sub is covering the program of a teacher for 30+ consecutive days. It sounds straightforward enough, but a few things have to happen in order for subs to receive a Z-status designation: the job has to be entered into SubCentral as a continuous job lasting 30+ days, the SubCentral job has to reflect the name of the educator that the sub is covering for, and the sub must complete 30 consecutive days of service without missing a day. Missing a day means that this 30 day clock resets, and the sub would have to achieve a 30 day school day streak in order to achieve Z-status again. There are also Q-status positions, which to my understanding are based on vacancies. Z-status should happen automatically when schools hire subs the right way in SubCentral — they unfortunately seldom do in my experience. Many principals hire subs as “long-term subs”, but what they’re really saying is “We want to hire long-terms subs to take on full-time teaching duties, but without the corresponding pay.”. Q-status is equally tricky because principals have to nominate subs to hold a regular (Q-status; 5BA or 5BP appointment). There are far too many parts of this system that depend on the goodwill of school administrators.

So if I had the power to influence DOE policy, what would I change? I think the following items are perfectly reasonable things that substitute teachers and allies could advocate for:

  • A retroactive stipend to compensate for days missed due to COVID. I think that sub teachers who completed at least 85 days of service during the 2020-2021 school year should receive a retroactive stipend of $1934.70. Subs who completed at least 85 days of service during the 2021-2022 school year should receive a similar stipend of $996.35. I based these figures on the amount of pay a substitute teacher would have missed for 10 days of quarantine during the 2020-21 school year, whereas the quarantine period was later shortened to 5 days in December 2021. I honestly don’t know a single sub who didn’t get COVID at some point, and we were really the only staff members in a school who moved around multiple groups of kids while everyone else was in their cohort and class pods.
  • Increasing the occasional per diem rate by $75-$100. This moves the per diem rate closer to the take home pay of a new appointed teacher, but it’s also worth noting that this bump in pay would likely go towards essentials such as medical care and dental.
  • Implementing a differential in pay for years of service and level of educational attainment. Long-term assignments currently pay subs for salary steps up to 4B, which is based solely on how long someone has worked for the DOE. I think that the DOE should honor the longevity of occasional per diem subs as well, even if they don’t take on long-term assignments.
  • Establishing a payroll classification for subs who may rotate classrooms on a daily basis, but stay within the same school community for an extended period of time. In the eyes of the DOE, long-term sub status only really matters when you’re covering for an absent teacher (Z-status) or a vacancy (Q-status). I submit that there’s a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that is gained when subs spend time at a specific site, especially in regards to the relationships that we build with students. Perhaps we’ll call it B-status (B for building!).
  • Require schools to file a form attesting what the nature of a sub’s position will be. If a school intends to hire a sub to facilitate a class for the remainder of a semester or school year, they should have to attest this acknowledgement in a form filed with SubCentral and DOE HR. This addresses my earlier point about substitute teachers being cheated out of long-term pay. I’d go a step further and say that this step should be automatically required for any sub that completes 30+ days of service at a school regardless of their assignment. It adds an element of transparency that currently does not exist in the process and would make it much more feasible for subs to win a pay grievance if it ever came to that.
  • Creating a grace period as it relates to missed days and maintaining Z-status. I understand that Z-status is a long-term service designation, but it seems incredibly callous to lose Z-status just for missing one day. Instead, subs should be required to complete 30+ consecutive days of service to initiate Z-status, but also accrue Cumulative Absence Reserve (CAR) days in the same way that appointed teachers do.

At the risk of sounding lazy, I was straight up tired after subbing through the pandemic. I had this bucket list of things I wanted to advocate for, but I was starting to feel my candle burn from both ends as the work I was doing (while incredibly fulfilling as a long-term sub), just wasn’t proportional to the compensation that I received for that work. While I successfully grieved back pay for one of my long-term sub assignments, it was a prolonged ordeal, and I wish that subs didn’t have to jump through so many hoops just to get things that we rightfully deserve. In terms of what subs actually need to do to advocate for better working conditions, I’d suggest the following:

  • Join the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Based anecdotally on what I’ve seen in the NYC DOE substitute teacher/para Facebook group that I moderate, I don’t think that we have nearly enough per diem members who are aware of the union. Some substitutes hold the union in incredibly low regard, which perpetuates the current status quo of how we’re seen as members.
  • Be aware of our contractual obligations. Many of these overlap with the rights that appointed teachers enjoy: the right to a duty-free lunch, a self-directed prep period, not teaching more than a certain number of classes back to back, etc. One of the most common things I’ve heard about substitutes having issues with at their sites is the workday length. Occasional per diem subs have a 6 hour 50 minute workday. If a school instructs me to report at 8am, I’m clocking out at 2:50, regardless of what PD, OPW, etc. might be scheduled. We do not have the same obligations as appointed teachers in that regard.
  • Escalate issues as needed. I’ve worked alongside some great chapter leaders. However, many just aren’t familiar with some of the unique issues that substitute teachers face (see Z/Q status above). Learn who your district/borough union representatives are, and don’t be afraid to utilize them as a resource.
  • Learn about and get involved with a union caucus. Similar to how multiple parties constitute the American political system, various caucuses make up the political landscape of the UFT. A caucus is essentially a group of union members who share similar ideas and philosophies about how our union should best serve its members and what the role of the union should be. I’m personally affiliated with the Movement of Rank and File (MORE), a social justice-oriented caucus. I encourage any union member to check out the United for Change coalition partners to get an idea of the different groups out there and what they represent.

I wish I had a more satisfying answer to address how I think substitute teachers should be treated/compensated in the wake of the last few years or (more importantly) what has to be done in order to advocate for those changes. As I mentioned before, I’m transitioning out of subbing and looking forward to starting my full-time teaching job in the fall. I’m also back in grad school and simply don’t have the bandwidth right now to dedicate as much time to these issues as I’d like.

That being said, anyone who knows me knows that it’s hard for me to keep my mouth shut when I care deeply about an issue. The challenges and concerns that I raised in this post and previously on this blog won’t be addressed through the actions of a single person. Rather, they will be addressed through worker solidarity and nurturing a movement that not only prioritizes the collective needs of per diem educators but also intersects with other labor and social justice movements, such as the current labor movement driving unionization efforts at Starbucks, Amazon, and other companies.

Aside from my obvious interest in substitute teachers being treated better, I think that full-time educators also have a stake in the matter. Everyone wants the peace of mind of knowing that when they have to miss a day of school or take extended time off that their classes will be left in the hands of a competent substitute teacher. Improving the working conditions of substitute teachers goes a long way towards making sure that the DOE is able to retain subs who are competent at the job and minimizes the disruption to our students’ learning experiences.

We all have a vested interest in the DOE maintaining a pool of talented, capable substitute teachers. Our students deserve no less. I hope that this post in particular provides some actionable steps that per diem educators and allies alike can work towards.