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Paraprofessionals for Branford Public Schools came out on Jan. 13, picketing outside the district central office to raise awareness about their call for higher wages, saying the district’s offers aren’t commensurate with their work. A second contract mediation is set for this Thursday, Jan. 16. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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While a second contract mediation is set for this Thursday, Jan. 16, paraprofessionals for Branford Public Schools (BPS) came out early this week, picketing outside the district's Main Street office on Monday, Jan. 13 to raise awareness about their call for better wages and benefits commensurate with their work.
Annie MacDonald, a regional representative for United Electrical (UE) Workers and Branford Paraprofessionals (UE22288), said Branford, by comparison to other districts, is low on the list when it comes to starting wages for paraeducators.
"In the district reference group that Branford is in, there's about 25 schools, and Branford is, if not at the bottom, the second or third from the bottom in terms of wages," said MacDonald. "The average beginning wage in the reference group is about $16.50 [and] about 65 percent of the [Branford] members are at $14.33."
There are approximately 132 union paraprofessionals currently working in the district. Paraprofessionals are employed by the district 10 months out of the year. Following the expiration of the 2015-19 contract in June, 2019, the union began negotiating with BPS in July for a new four-year contract, said Branford Paraprofessionals union president Pam Van Winkle.
"We're looking for higher wages commensurate with what we do," said Van Winkle. "We work with the kids all day long. We get a 30-minute unpaid lunch; otherwise, we're with the kids."
She said the highest wage earned by a paraprofessional in the district is $19.92 an hour, with those earning that amount on the job a minimum of 15 years.
Van Winkle was among about a dozen union representatives picketing oustide the district's central office at 1111 Main St. in downtown Branford at about 4 p.m. on Jan. 13, where passing drivers beeped their horns to show support as the group waved signs with messages and chanted. Posters called for support and respect and laid out issues facing the workers. One sign read, "Branford Paras lose sleep over others people's children AND over paying their bills. Wage increase NOW," another, "No Para Left Behind: You Can't Put Students First if you Put Paras Last," and another, "The Rest of Us are at Our Second Job!"
Van Winkle said other Branford paraprofessionals were certainly out working second jobs or they would have joined the picket that day.
"They're busy working because they're wages are so low. They get, on the average, $15,000 a year," said Van Winkle.
Information shared by the union said Branford paraeducators' daily responsibilities can include assisting classroom teachers with instruction, working with special needs students, small group work, lunchroom and recess duties and performing other duties which may be determined by the administration.
The paraprofessionals are required to have either a minimum of sixty college credits, a two-year college degree or pass a general aptitude test required for certification. Union members said the rate of turnover for Branford paraeducators is 30 to 40 percent per year, with the reason most commonly expressed for leaving being a move to a higher paying job with better benefits and more hours.
Paraprofessionals currently can opt for employee-only insurance (no coverage for dependents) and have, by contract, seven annual sick days for full-time employees, four sick days for part-time, and five holidays. The union is looking a fairer contract that will deliver what they feel is more equitable benefits and pay.
Ahead of going back into mediation on Jan. 16, Van Winkle said what's been offered, to date, by BPS isn't where the union hopes to be.
"We're worlds apart. We're going to keep chipping away at mediation, and hopefully seeing the paras out here makes a difference," said Van Winkle.
Zip06/The Sound reached out to BPS Chief Operating Officer Donald A.Neel for comment on information shared by the union as well as the current contract negotiations. Neel said he couldn't comment on the contract mediation process while it is underway.
That being said, Neel added that, at all times, "...we highly value the work of our paraprofessionals."
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