Some teacher aides are working multiple jobs, earning less than a McDonald’s worker or applying for summer jobs to supplement their work to make a living.
Now they are taking a stand.
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Today Westbrook support staff teachers will wear black and white and protest at the intersection of Old Taupō and Malfroy Rds at 12pm for an hour at the most.
A group of support staff spoke to the Rotorua Daily Post about the work they do which earns them between $17.70 – minimum wage – and $19 an hour. The current living wage in New Zealand is $21.15.
This was despite years of experience, qualifications, and the physical, mental and emotional aspects of the job.
NZEI Te Riu Roa has been negotiating collective agreements with the Ministry of Education since July 30 and no offer has been made. Pay equity processes for teacher aides have been ongoing for the past three years.
Support staff voted on a week of action to show their frustration over the stalling of collective agreement and pay equity negotiations, and raise awareness of poor pay and job insecurity.
Sarah Dunn is a support staff worker at Westbrook Primary School. She earns $17.70 per hour and works 25 hours a week at the school as well as two other jobs just to get by.
Like other support staff, she is only paid for 40 weeks of work a year so works for an after-school programme which is fulltime during the school holidays.
“It’s $18 per hour which is more than here,” she said.
She also does photography and graphic design to make extra money.
Dunn is a general teacher aide and helps pupils with learning disabilities. She runs bricks club three times a week for children who needed to improve their social skills, gives free guitar lessons twice a week at lunchtime and puts in extra time on school projects like a recent news broadcasting she helped a group with.
Another Westbrook school teacher aide, who did not want to be named, had teenage sons who worked at McDonald’s for $18 per hour, more than she earned.
She had been in the profession for 11 years and said the fact she was still on minimum wage was “degrading”.
She said without a teacher aide, “some of these children would not be able to access a classroom at all . . . and if it was behavioural needs they would disrupt the whole class”.
Their stories were just two of many.
A woman who worked with a high-needs pupil who needed constant supervision was previously a cleaner and earned more than $7 an hour more than she did now.
Another high-needs staff member said there were good days and bad days, and bad days involved children hitting, screaming, punches and trying to run away.
But the support staff said they stayed because it was rewarding.
A woman who had just applied for a job at K-Mart for the school holidays said despite how rewarding she found the job, if another job came up that offered her more hours, she would take it because she needed to support her own family.
Teacher aides work with children with learning difficulties and those with disabilities as well as children with foetal alcohol syndrome, poverty-stricken, hungry and anxious children.
Westbrook School, like many others in the country, had pupils with high-end needs such as wheelchairs, and some unable to talk or go to the toilet by themselves.
The teacher aides said it was a rewarding job, but could be physically and emotionally taxing and their income did not reflect the work they did.
Some teacher aides did not plan to strike today because they couldn’t afford it and the children and teachers needed them in the class.
Principal Colin Watkins said one-third of the school’s operational funding from the Ministry of Education to run the entire school was spent on support staff wages and support for its special needs children.
Yet despite it being a huge percentage of its budget, he was “embarrassed and upset” to pay them the “pathetic” rate of up to $19 an hour.
“They don’t mix paint and make glue anymore . . . They are often well trained and do teacher-aide courses and specific training in specific areas to support kids in classrooms.
“I’m embarrassed to pay them that but if I was able to pay them what they deserve, it would break the bank, we couldn’t do it. The ministry doesn’t give us the money to do it.”
He said he fully supported his support staff getting off the breadline.
“They are genuinely struggling, often they are the only breadwinner in the family, or are single parents or families who are on the lowest end of collective incomes and yet they are doing this powerfully important job that they should be getting a lot more money for.”
The Ministry of Education was asked whether support staff would be paid a living wage and if so, when.
In response, the Ministry of Education deputy secretary early learning and student achievement Ellen MacGregor-Reid said the work of support staff was important.
“Bargaining is under way on a new collective agreement and conversations have been constructive. The Ministry has invited NZEI Te Riu Roa to return to talks.”