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What Happens When Substitute Educators Join the Union?


Last year, as a substitute educator in Seattle with decades of experience and a full complement of state certifications and endorsements, Peter Henry earned more money than many full-time teachers across the nation.

“Our daily rate is about $240 a day, which is at the top, or near the top, for Washington,” says Henry, president of the Seattle Education Association (SEA)’s Seattle Substitutes Association, but additional contract provisions for long-term assignments allow substitute educators to earn more.  “Would this have happened if we didn’t have [union] representation? No. You’d have rent-a-temps, like Kelly Services.”

There is power in the union, say substitute educators. In collectively bargained contracts that range from Maryland to Maine to Washington, substitute educators who belong to NEA-affiliated local unions have a voice at the bargaining table—and within their unions—that has led to more professional pay, some access to health and retirement benefits, and professional development opportunities that make them better teachers.

“I’ve been on the bargaining team for our last two contracts. Our issues are taken seriously. We don’t always get what we want, but we are heard,” says Henry.

Today, on Substitute Educators Day, a part of American Education Week, NEA honors its more than 4,700 substitute educator members. Increasingly as districts turn more frequently to substitute educators, these substitute educators are making vital contributions to the success of students in public schools.

“We’re the emergency team,” says Nancy Paine, who is president of the substitute association within the Edmonds Education Association in Washington. “We come in and make sure everything is okay.

“I think that’s a valuable service—and I think it needs to be treated that way.”

One in Ten

There is no “typical” substitute teacher. Some are future teachers. Many are retired teachers, like Paine, or Ben Visnick, a retired high school history teacher and former union president, who serves as a board member in California’s Oakland Education Association. Others are people who, for various reasons, find that the flexible work schedule works for them.

But what is increasingly common, across the nation, is that substitute educators are called to caulk the gaps in the education workforce. About one in four teachers missed at least 10 days of work, or about two weeks of school, in 2016, according to federal data. In districts where secondary trauma or work-related stress is worse, teacher absentee rates can be higher. Meanwhile, many districts kick off the school year with unfilled teacher positions, as low pay, low morale, and scant funding contribute to the growing teacher shortage.

On any given day, substitute educators are helming about 10 percent of all classrooms, studies say. These substitute educators have a range of qualifications, depending on their state or district. At one end of the spectrum, in Edmonds all substitutes must be certificated, and emergency certified subs can only be used when fully certificated substitutes aren’t available. But desperation often fuels lower standards: in Florida, where the teaching shortage is acute, one high school recently hired teenagers to substitute in its classrooms.

Negotiating for a Better Place

Across the nation, NEA and its affiliates are working to make sure substitute educators get what they need so that students can get what they need. “My whole thing is that we could make substitute teaching a much more professional occupation if we took the time and treated it that way,” says Visnick.

By raising the collective voices of substitute educators, and uniting them with their full-time colleagues, substitute educators have improved workplace conditions in several areas.

We’re the emergency team. We come in and make sure everything is okay. I think that’s a valuable service—and I think it needs to be treated that way.” – Nancy Paine, president of the substitute association within the Edmonds Education Association in Washington. 

Pay. Often pay is at the top of the list when it comes to a union’s goals at the bargaining table. “If you’ve done your job right, and you keep getting invited back, then you deserve professional pay,” says Paine.

In Montgomery County, Md., that looks like more than $200 a day for long-term, certificated substitutes with negotiated bonuses of $250 for those who work at least 25 days a semester and $450 for those who hit 45 days.

In Oakland, the union has negotiated a starting rate of $139 a day, which jumps to $162 after 30 days and $179 after 60 days. Thanks to the union’s efforts, “pay has improved,” says Visnick, who first worked as a substitute in the late 70s earning around $29 a day. But pay hasn’t kept pace with rising rents. Full-time and substitute educators alike are preparing to strike this winter if the district doesn’t step up, he says. “We would never have enough power to strike if we [substitute educators] were alone,” he adds.

This past year, Seattle substitute educators received a 5 percent raise—the same as all other educators in the district. “In past contracts, the district has wanted to play the certified employees against the classified employees by offering bigger raises to one group. But that didn’t get very far. We have a history of standing up for each other,” says Henry.

Benefits. Substitute educators’ access to healthcare and retirement benefits is uneven. In West Virginia, substitutes are ineligible to participate in the state’s pension system, but long-term substitutes can be eligible for health benefits. In California, some substitutes who work frequently are provided with healthcare benefits, but many aren’t. Also, if they work 100 days in a district, those substitutes pay into the state pension system and will receive a small pension upon retirement.

In Seattle, most substitute educators aren’t eligible for district-paid health benefits, but some can opt to pay, at their own cost, to participate. After 60 days on the job, SEA has negotiated effectively for district-provided health insurance. Similarly, in Portland, Maine, the Portland Association of Teachers has made sure its substitutes are eligible for the district’s medical insurance plan, with monthly premiums paid by the district, if they have worked the equivalent of 70 days in the previous year. These substitutes can opt to pay for spouses and children.

Professional development. It’s not easy being a substitute educator. Professional development in classroom management, technology, and more is necessary—and benefits both educators and students. Many union contracts require this kind of specific professional development, and unions often take the lead in providing it. In August, SEA’s substitute association hosted its own one-day summit that was attended by about 200 substitute educators, says Henry, who co-presented his own session on the many provisions in their contract.

“Our contract requires two half-days,” says Visnick. In Edmonds, it’s one day, which last year was dedicated to cultural competence training; this year it will focus on special education and other topics. “We need to tell these [substitute] teachers—‘Join us. We will help you be a better teacher. We have programs to help you,’” says Visnick.



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