Debbie Reyes gets very emotional when she recalls the day a student broke her nose. A special education paraeducator for the Pfleugerville Independent School District, in Texas, Reyes works with students on the autism spectrum, many of whom are nonverbal and have severe sensory and behavior challenges.
It was the end of the day and time to clean up, but the boy was sleeping. His mother said he regularly woke up at 3 a.m., wanting to go to school and unable to go back to sleep. The special educators often let him nap, but when Reyes woke him up that afternoon, he responded by striking out, hitting her in the face with his elbow.
“I heard a pop and a crack,” she said. Her nose was fractured in two places, requiring surgery. It took more than a year for her nose to heal.
“I don’t blame him,” Reyes says, tearing up as she tells the story. “He needs a lot of behavior support, and his parents asked us for help. I work with him in the communications unit, a section of the special education room where we help students calm down and communicate what they’re feeling, because a student can’t learn until his behavior is under control.
“He just needs help and I want to be a voice for him.” Reyes is committed to being a voice for her special education students. She’s also a voice for her fellow education support professionals (ESPs) who are essential to a well-rounded education for their students but still don’t earn a living wage.
Every Job Matters
Reyes and fellow ESP members of the Pflugerville Educators Association (PfEA) in central Texas have been fighting for a $3 an hour pay raise for all hourly employees since last school year. Committed to their students, they work second and third jobs and rely on food stamps and other public assistance to make ends meet so they can continue their work in education, which most say is their calling.
“Every single one of our ESPs is critical to the success of our students and they shouldn’t have to worry about paying for groceries or making rent,” says PfEA President Cindy Maroquio. “Everybody matters, every job matters, and they all deserve to have a living wage income.”
Reyes, a single mother who lives with her 10-year-old daughter in income-based public housing, brings home $1,500 a month in her paycheck. Her rent is $1,000 and just went up by $40. She expects it will continue to rise as she struggles to stretch the rest of her wages to pay for food, gas, utilities, and everything else.
One month when she couldn’t pay the electric bill, she had to rely on help from her church.
“How are we supposed to survive without a proper living wage?” Reyes asks. “How am I supposed to show up at work and do a good job if I haven’t eaten a decent meal or if I’m not properly dressed? It’s not OK.”
Her job is critical to the school district—it takes a strong, caring, and extremely dedicated person to work with students with severe special needs and behavior problems.
With a $3 an hour raise, Reyes would earn $20.57, about the same hourly rate as a landscaper, bank teller, or truck driver.
To earn at least as much is a matter of dignity and respect. In other parts of the country, in smaller towns or rural areas, $1,500 a month might be livable. But in Pflugerville, part of the Austin metro area, the cost of living has skyrocketed as more and more people move there and older, traditionally low-income areas of the city gentrify.
Rising Cost of Living
Austin is consistently voted one of the best places to live, not just in Texas but in the United States. In many low-income communities of color around the city, people are being pushed out by young, higher earning professionals who want to experience life in the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
“The cat is long out of the bag,” says Maroquio. “Austin is an amazing place to live.”
But it should be an affordable place to live for everyone— including the ESPs who want to live in the same community as their students. To Reyes, it’s an issue for all ESPs, but especially for ESPs of color whose low wages can’t keep up with gentrification.
Many of the ESPs in her district were raised in poverty in border towns like Donna, Brownsville, Mission, or Mercedes.
They live in trailers or crammed with two or three other families into one-bedroom apartments. As the cost of living rises, even those will become unaffordable unless they receive a raise.
“I tell them I will keep fighting for you because I know. I also started at $11 an hour,” Reyes says. “I know poverty. I know how bad it is.”
After years of stagnant wages coincided with enormous increases in the cost of living and the fastest growth rates in rent and home prices in the state, PfEA ESPs decided to take action.
Last April, they circulated a petition, asking all Pfleugerville educators to support the $3 an hour raise. Then they took that petition—with its hundreds of signatures—to spring and summer school board meetings.
With more than 30 union members, all wearing blue, sitting behind her in support, Reyes addressed board members in April, sharing her story of having worked in the district for more than a decade as a special education paraeducator, and loving her job despite the physical assaults and constant stress. She held aloft a copy of her pay stub alongside her monthly bills, explaining that her current pay was not enough to cover expenses for herself and her daughter.
One of the school board members has a nonverbal daughter with autism who is one of Reyes’ special education students.
“He said we were paid enough,” she says. “I was completely heartbroken to hear him say that, knowing that I worked with his daughter, knowing her struggles. I pleaded with him and the other board members to come to our classroom and walk in our shoes for a day and then tell us we don’t deserve the increase.”
According to PfEA President Maroquio, anyone who claims the Pflugerville ESPs “make enough” do not have to live on $35,000 a year.
“They haven’t experienced what that’s actually like, making only $35,000 a year and supporting a family,” she says.
“Do they realize the heart and soul and blood, sweat, and tears these educators put into our students? They have no understanding of the nature of the work that these dedicated people do, nor do they understand how critical it is.”
Show of Solidarity
Over the years, Reyes has seen special education paraeducators and other ESP members come and go. She’s not surprised. It’s a hard choice, but many who can’t make ends meet have to leave for better paying jobs.
“Costco pays $15 an hour, and most of our ESPs start at $11 an hour, so why stay?” she asks. “It took me more than a decade to get to $17.57 an hour, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.
How are we supposed to survive without a proper living wage? How am I supposed to show up at work and do a good job if I haven’t eaten a decent meal or if I’m not properly dressed? It’s not OK.” – Debbie Reyes
“I love my work as a special education paraeducator. I worked at a state hospital and a treatment center helping patients with behavior issues. I feel like this is my calling.”
The Pflugerville ESP members aren’t alone. ESPs working in neighboring districts also struggle with low wages. Maroquio and other PfEA members support other district campaigns and regularly attend their school board meetings in a show of solidarity.
“Their stories are the same as ours,” she says. “Someone at a Killeen district school board meeting spoke about being homeless for a month because of their low salaries. Another woman couldn’t pay for hot running water. These are people who barely have enough for their own expenses but will still reach into their own pockets to bring in food for their students who don’t have enough to eat. These are people who dig down deep to support their students and are simply asking for the same support from their school districts.”
As of late September, the school board had voted to give hourly district employees a 5 percent increase, which would raise Reyes’ salary by about a dollar to $18.45.
“We are going to continue the fight,” says Maroquio. “We will continue to go before the school board and ask for that $3 an hour. We’ve been advocating for this for a long time and we’re not going to stop now.”