Occupational therapist Larissa Gomes has seen the pandemic’s toll on students with disabilities, so she jumped at the chance to offer extra sessions through an education department program that provides makeup services outside the regular school day.
But for four months, the education department didn’t pay her for most of the hours she worked, representing over $5,000. After putting her daughter’s college tuition on a credit card, she decided she was finished with the extra afterschool and Saturday sessions.
“I could not keep working without being paid,” she said. “There was never any kind of explanation why it’s taken the DOE so long.”
Gomes filed a grievance through the United Federation of Teachers and was recently paid for the hours she worked, but has no plans to return to the program.
Thanks to billions in federal relief funding, the city’s education department set aside $200 million to offer students small group reading and math instruction in addition to therapies that were missed or difficult to deliver during long stretches of remote learning. Despite the influx of resources, occupational and physical therapists across the city have struggled to get paid on time since the recovery services program launched on most campuses in December, according to therapists and union officials.
It’s unclear how many therapists like Gomes have quit the special education recovery program due to payment issues. Education department officials did not say how many have not been paid correctly or left the program for that reason. Still, the payment problems may make some therapists hesitant to sign up for similar programs, potentially leaving students without access to services and complicating future efforts to provide extra help to students with disabilities.
“Many therapists know this is the DOE’s MO, so they don’t take work,” said Melissa Williams, an occupational therapist and union chapter leader. “I refused to work [the recovery program] because I was worried this would happen.”
Officials at the United Federation of Teachers, which represents many occupational and physical therapists, said they are working with roughly 75 therapists who have not yet been paid at all and another 75 who have only been partially paid. The union has successfully resolved payment issues for another 150 therapists, officials said.
Surveys of therapists from early in the year suggested hundreds of therapists were not being paid on time. Williams and UFT officials indicated that there have been improvements since then.
Williams said there have been a series of bureaucratic problems in the payment process for therapists, which is run through a separate system than the one for teachers. She blamed the education department for failing to quickly train school payroll secretaries to properly enter payment information, arguing the agency “didn’t have a plan for how they were going to pay us.” She also said the city incorrectly denied waivers that are needed to pay therapists for overtime work.
“What has happened is unacceptable,” Alison Gendar, a UFT spokesperson, wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “The union is focused on getting members the money they are owed, speeding up the process for the remaining payments, and pushing the DOE to improve the new payment system it finally created so we don’t have this problem going forward.”
Nicole Brownstein, a spokesperson for the education department, said the city has issued new guidance for payroll secretaries in an effort to address payment issues.
“Therapists are essential to providing Special Education Recovery Services for our students with disabilities, and they deserve to be compensated in a timely manner for their important work,” Brownstein wrote in a statement. “We are making progress in clearing the backlog, and we will work hard until all providers are paid in full.”
Since its inception, the recovery program for students with disabilities has faced setbacks. Its rollout was delayed until December at many schools. The city did not guarantee yellow bus transportation, making it difficult for many students to participate, and schools often did not clearly communicate with families about what services their children would receive during the extra hours. And despite being open to all students with disabilities, only about 35% of them are expected to participate by the end of the year, city officials said.
Still, some parents and therapists have said the additional sessions have been helpful.
Jenny Clavin, an occupational therapist who provided extra therapy for two schools in Queens, said she was glad to connect with students to give them more support, including movement activities and help with motor skills. Some of her students struggled to log in for remote sessions.
“During the last two years, it’s been so stressful,” she said. The recovery program “was a nice way to connect with them and give them more support.”
But getting compensated for her work has been a hassle. Although she started working for the program in December, she said she wasn’t paid at all until March. Even then, there were ongoing errors in her pay, Clavin said, including money for days she didn’t work and lack of payment for days that she did. She said the city has deducted some of the incorrect payments from subsequent paychecks but has not fully paid her for all the days she worked.
“I don’t know how I’m ever going to work out the mistakes that are in my pay,” she said. “The uncertainty of not knowing what my paycheck is going to be until I get it because of the errors is a major source of stress.”
Some advocates said the payment issues were concerning because any disincentive among therapists to sign up for initiatives like the after school and Saturday recovery program could lead to students missing out on crucial services.
Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children, said occupational and physical therapists provide support that is often a precondition to academic success, such as learning to grip a pencil or helping students build up enough endurance to navigate the school building and focus during class without becoming exhausted.
“If providers aren’t being paid, or if they’re not being paid quickly, then they’re not going to stay in the work,” Moroff said. “And if they don’t stay in the work, then the kids aren’t going to get the services and it’s a disaster.”
For her part, Gomes said she was torn about her decision to stop providing extra sessions of occupational therapy through the recovery program. She had been offering therapy sessions at an elementary school in Harlem in addition to a specialized site on Staten Island geared toward students with sensory challenges — and she acknowledged it may be hard for the elementary school to quickly find a replacement for her.
“We are seeing progress with the students,” she said. “I really like the [recovery program], but I just can’t go through anything like that again.”
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.