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NYC’s plan to cut back pay for teachers adds frustration and anxiety

At issue is the last of a series of lump sum payments that have been paid out to teachers for the past five years.

Sarah Allen, a teacher in Gowanus, poses for a picture with her family while on vacation last year in Wisconsin.
Courtesy of Sarah Allen

Shortly after this story was published, the city reached an agreement to pay half of the back wages on Oct. 31 and the other half in July 2021.

Brooklyn teacher Sarah Allen was counting on thousands of extra dollars in her Oct. 15 paycheck — the final chunk of back wages due to many members of the city’s teachers union.

As she and her husband both head back to work, they counted on her $8,500 in retroactive pay for child care for her four children since they’ve only received one seat so far with the city’s free Learning Bridges child care program designed to give first preference to teachers and first responders.

Educators will no longer get those back wages — for now — adding another layer of frustration and tension during a time that has already been anxiety-ridden amid constantly shifting guidance around school reopening. As the city faces a massive fiscal crisis and is attempting to avoid layoffs, the move would save about $900 million, according to City Hall and union officials. The teachers union plans to challenge the decision and was expected to enter arbitration over the issue on Friday, union president Michael Mulgrew told members on Thursday night.

Also, since retroactive money was due shortly, the city’s teacher retirement system advised educators to contribute more from their upcoming paycheck toward a tax-deferred retirement savings plan. Allen opted to set aside about four times more than she can usually afford to contribute — a move she cannot reverse for her next check.

“We were fully ready to use all of that money,” said Allen, who returned two weeks ago to the Children’s School, a Gowanus elementary school where Mayor Bill de Blasio sent his children. “That could have been used to allow us both to go back to work.”

Allen, who has already borrowed from her retirement savings account to help cover previous, unpaid maternity leave, can’t find an affordable babysitter. Without the back wages, her husband might not yet be able to return to his office since someone must watch their children on the days they are not learning in-person. He’s found it impossible at times to juggle working from home while assisting his children with remote learning, Allen said.

At issue is the last of a series of lump sum payments that have been paid out to teachers for the past five years. When de Blasio took office, he promised to provide raises to teachers that his predecessor Michael Bloomberg withheld in 2009 and 2010, since teachers had no contract at the time.

The raises to teachers, who worked for the city between 2009 and 2015, totaled about $3 billion over time. The final $900 million installment was due to those remaining employed as of Oct. 1 as well as those who retired after June 30, 2014.

But this year presented vast new financial challenges forcing the mayor to choose between the back wages or layoffs, he said Friday. The mayor suggested that cutting these retroactive payments was only temporary.

“People should get that money eventually,” de Blasio said on WNYC, “but we cannot afford that money right now.”

The coronavirus pandemic has blown a $9 billion deficit into the city’s budget over the next two years. For months, de Blasio has been searching for another $1 billion in cuts to labor costs. Without additional stimulus money from the federal government, he has also sought to borrow $5 billion — a move that would require state approval but has so far been rejected by legislators in Albany. Some advocates and lawmakers have also advocated for increasing taxes on the ultra-wealthy.

The last resort, de Blasio has said, would be to lay off 22,000 workers across all city agencies. (City officials have repeatedly declined to say how many of these would be education department positions.) To stave off the layoffs, he has instituted furloughs for 9,000 employees, saving $21 million, and has now turned to the teachers union to look for savings.

One fiscal watchdog, the Citizens Budget Commission, has urged the mayor to find the labor savings in different ways, such as eliminating the Absent Teacher Reserve, requiring municipal workers to contribute to their monthly healthcare premiums, and scrapping the tax-deferred retirement plan that Allen and many other teachers have.

Layoffs would compound a staffing crisis New York City schools are facing. As half of the city’s roughly 1 million students have opted for fully remote learning with the rest following a hybrid schedule of small in-person classes mixed with remote learning days, many schools need more teachers than typical. The city has promised to deploy education department staffers to schools as well as set aside an additional $50 million for hiring.

Many families have already felt the effects of the staffing shortage. At P.S. 139 in Brooklyn, one parent recently told Chalkbeat that a teacher shortage has meant nearly no live lessons for her third-grade son on the days he learns from home.

On top of the staffing shortage, the costs of keeping schools open with new social distancing and safety guidelines to protect students and staff from the coronavirus are adding up. The city would need to pay an extra $32 million a week to meet new guidance, according to an estimate from the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Teachers were “in for another fight” after a tumultuous summer of arguing with the city over the safety and staffing details of school reopening plans, Mulgrew said in a video message to members Thursday night. The city’s financial situation was “not a surprise,” Mulgrew said, criticizing officials for waiting “until the very time they’re processing” the payment to announce they could not pay it.

De Blasio has indicated that the city has been negotiating with labor unions for months on cost-savings measures in order to avoid any layoffs. Teachers questioned why neither the union nor the city informed them sooner that retroactive payments could be on the chopping block.

When Serena Robinett, who teaches P.S./M.S. 161 in Harlem, received the email from the city’s teacher retirement system on Sept. 5 encouraging her to make a greater one-time contribution to their tax-deferred retirement savings plan because of the upcoming payment, she also did so.

Robinett doubled her typical contribution to $800, expecting the cushion of retroactive wages.

“I’m lucky I’ve saved during this whole quarantine because I didn’t go out,” Robinett said. “But it’s like, how do I let this paycheck last me and pay my rent, pay my credit card bills?”

Union officials did not respond to a question about when they first became aware that retroactive payments could be threatened. When asked during an August town hall about the status of the back wages, Mulgrew said the money was there, and “there’s no reason to touch it,” according to a blog by Arthur Goldstein, who is a teacher and a member of the union’s high school executive board.

City officials declined to say why the city’s retirement system encouraged employees to increase their contributions in September if those payments were in question.

Noelia Santiago, second from the right, with her family.
Courtesy of Noelia Santiago

Noelia Santiago, who teaches at Dewitt Clinton High School, said her salary was cut this year by $12,500 after losing her “teacher leader” title — a position that comes with coaching and mentoring colleagues and is subject to more money. (She has not received an explanation as to why she was demoted but said two other teacher leaders at the school also lost their titles.)

Because of the demotion, Santiago, who is raising three children with her husband in Orange County, was hoping to use $4,000 in expected retro pay to catch up on essential payments, such as a back-due electricity bill.

“I was hoping to catch up on regular bills,” she said. “I’m in survival mode.”

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