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Legislation proposes $25 per hour starting wage for non-licensed school employees

Education support professionals are often the first and last people a student sees on a school day.

These individuals keep schools running, students safe, healthy and ready to learn. They include paraeducators, food service workers, custodians, clerical workers and bus drivers.

But people in these positions often cannot afford to stay.

“We send our babies to these individuals and hope they take of our babies and get them back on the right bus, get them home safe, and then we ask them to do it for minimum wages,” said Rep. John Thompson (I-St. Paul). “… At the end, it’ll be our kids who will be losing if we lose these people.”

Rep. Liz Olson (DFL-Duluth) sponsors HF2133, as amended, to help what she calls “the heroes.” It was held over Tuesday by the House Education Finance Committee for possible omnibus bill inclusion.

“All educators deserve the same things: respect for their contributions to the care and education of our students; fair compensation for their work, including affordable health care; safe working conditions,” Olson said. “Unfortunately, most education support professionals across Minnesota don’t get enough of any of those.”

Olson said the low wages coupled with living costs for things like groceries, health insurance and day care, along with uncertainty of summer employment, force these people to leave for more secure, better-paying jobs. It also worsens shortages in these professions.

Her bill calls for a $25 per hour minimum starting salary for non-licensed school personnel. “The average wage in Minnesota for an ESP is about $15 an hour,” Olson said.

Among other changes she proposes are:

  • continuous pay and benefits if a district implements e-learning days;
  • allowing unlicensed school employees to receive unemployment benefits between school terms, such as summer months;
  • up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for a year through payroll deduction and employer contribution;
  • at least 20 hours annually of paid orientation for professional development for paraprofessionals and other instructional support staff working directly with students with disabilities;
  • a paraprofessional would receive paid time to review a student’s individualized education program and collaborate with a student’s teacher before beginning work with the student; and
  • districts would cover at least 83% of the annual health insurance premium and at least 50% of the annual out-of-pocket maximum for employees covered under a single premium, with numbers of 72% and 50% for a family premium. Districts could levy for the health care costs.

A fiscal note has yet to produced, but Olson estimates the unemployment benefit expansion alone would cost about $28 million per year.

The changes would help people like Michelle Seydel, a special education paraprofessional in the Lake City schools. The single mother of five makes $14 an hour; three years ago that number was $11.47.

“The wages we are currently paying ESPs equal an income that is lower than poverty levels in our country,” she said. “… We cannot be focused on education in Minnesota without acknowledging the discrepancies in what we’ve been paying our support staff. Our education system would not work without paraprofessionals, yet I can go work at a fast-food restaurant and be paid more.”

Bill support also came from testifiers who work in Duluth, Osseo and Minneapolis schools.

Kim Lewis, associate director of government relations with the Minnesota School Boards Association, expressed many concerns, including changes without accompanying funding, affects on collective bargaining, finding substitute workers, the state setting wages and the lack of local control.

“School boards currently don’t have the authority to levy for funds that would be needed to cover the employer portion of this proposal, and even if granted the authority to levy for these costs, it places yet another tax burden on our property taxpayers,” she said. “If the state seeks to require districts to provide this benefit we would ask the state to provide funding.”

Sen. Jason Isaacson (DFL-Shoreview) sponsors the companion, SF2290, which awaits action by the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee.

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