When Full-Time School Staff Qualify for Public Assistance, it's Time to Fight for Professional Pay

Had Marianne Murray taken an entry-level job at a fast food restaurant instead of with West Aurora School District 129 in Illinois, she might be earning a living wage by now.

“At McDonald’s, I might have gone into management,” says Murray, an office assistant to the principal at West Aurora High School. “By now, who knows where I’d be.”

Murray’s 33-year marriage ended last year, leaving her with only one paycheck to cover expenses for her and her dog, Ziti. Her two adult children live on their own. Still, after 20 years with the district she is struggling to make ends meet.

“After putting in that many years, I should be able to pay my way,” says Murray, who started as a substitute office worker in 1991 before becoming a permanent office professional in 1993. “If I could start over, I might look at opportunities in the corporate world.”

But Murray is a fighter, and she’s a leader. As president of the West Aurora Office Professionals Association (WAOPA), she recently helped convince her equally passionate members to begin a grassroots campaign for a living wage – the amount that is considered the minimum hourly wage a person needs to pay for life’s basic necessities without relying on family, government, or public assistance.

“People who work full-time jobs should not live in poverty,” says Murray, a 1973 graduate of West Aurora. “We want to be paid a professional wage for professional work.”

Marianne Murray, president of the West Aurora Office Professionals Association.

The Department of Health and Human Services compiles living wage figures using an economic formula applied to an area’s costs for food, housing, transportation, utilities, childcare, health care, and taxes. Education support professionals (ESPs) across the nation have raised wages, activated members, and challenged their district’s fiscal neglect by organizing what is known as a “living wage campaign.”

In Ithaca, New York, paraeducators won a 50 percent wage increase over three years, with no increase in health care contributions or reduction in benefits; in Montpellier, Vermont, members won a 6 percent wage increase with a 25 percent reduction in health insurance co-pays. And Scituate, Rhode Island, members won a 45 percent wage increase over four years.

In March, Murray and WAOPA Vice President Eve Willmann, secretary to the high school principal, gave a presentation to members on the nuts and bolts of staging a living wage campaign.

“We needed to learn their interest level,” says Willmann.

Members voted to organize a campaign, and quickly formed committees to address strategic planning, internal organizing, and community outreach.

“You’re worth it,” UniServ Director Bonnie Booth of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) told the members. Later, at the group’s May meeting, Booth addressed members again, along with David Rathke of the IEA Living Wage Task Force.

“If we are going to make progress,” Rathke told the 50-plus attendees, “you have to build relationships.”

To reach a living wage figure, WAOPA will survey its all-female membership of 79 members. The group has also voted to accept the district’s offer of a one-year pay freeze through May 2014.

“With the district’s current deficit and 50 teachers retiring next year, the timing is favorable to our campaign,” Willmann says. “The district will be in better financial condition then.”

Willmann says WAOPA will “take the year to build momentum to reach our goal of a collaborative resolution between WAOPA, district administrators, and education board members.”

Qualifying for Food Stamps

Shinette Williams works full time in the high school athletic director’s office. A single parent with three daughters, Williams brings home $874 every two weeks. It takes almost one of those checks to cover the monthly $711 rent payment for her two-bedroom apartment.

WAOPA members learn about how to conduct a living wage campaign.

“If you work full-time for a school district, you should be able to meet your basic needs,” says Williams, a 12-month ESP earning $23,100, which qualifies her for food stamps.

“It’s a heavy responsibility to care for students,” she says. “The district needs to hire the best people they can find and pay them adequately.”

Williams has an associate degree in computer programming and a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science. She once tutored adults in computer learning, but decreased her hours after she began working a second job to cover car payments.

Forced to Leave the Community Where She Works

Maritza Ramirez can’t afford to live in the district where she works. After her mortgage broker husband’s work hours were reduced, the couple sold their home and moved with their three children to a location further outside of town where rent is lower.

“We just want to provide for our family,” says Ramirez, who earns $15.35 an hour in the dean’s office at Herget Middle School. That’s $21,700 a year.

“After taxes, well, it’s difficult,” says Ramirez. “If I were earning a living wage, my husband’s situation wouldn’t have impacted my family as much as it has.”

Two of the Ramirez children qualify for reduced lunches at their public schools. The oldest works to help cover college costs.

“Paying us a living wage is an opportunity for the district to treat us fairly,” says Ramirez, who has an associate degree in business. “We’re worth it.”

Photos: Al Benson

Want to calculate the living wage in your area?
See the Economic Policy Institute or Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For more on living wage campaigns, visit NEA.org.