In the words of workers: Grace

Grace shared her story as part of MECEP’s State of Working Maine 2023 report. Click here to read the full report.

Grace is an Ed Tech 3 with 15 years’ experience as an educator. She currently works primarily with 1st graders at a Cumberland County school serving students in Pre-K through 2nd grade. 

We have a lot of new staff this year, and it feels like we are always looking for more people. We still have an opening for an ed tech. We have one custodian assigned to our building, and he’s the full-time bus driver as well. Another custodian is coming back from retirement to work three nights a week. Food service people from other schools sometimes come over to help, and our kitchen manager stays late to help with the vacuuming. Last year we had a single person in our school’s kitchen, serving hundreds of meals all by herself.  

Whenever we find somebody, it always comes down to wages and health insurance as the reasons they don’t take the job with us. A lot of people don’t realize that it takes 25 years for educational support personnel to get to the top of their pay scale. If you’re a van driver in our district, your starting pay is $20.81 per hour. After 25 years, you can work all the way up to $24.57. That’s less than a $4 raise, after 25 years!  

It’s unfair that you can only take these important jobs that require so much skill and care if you have a spouse and a dual family income. While I was in this position, I became a single mom, and it has been a huge struggle to support three kids. Thankfully, I was chosen for a Habitat for Humanity home, and my kids have benefitted from Pell grants and Maine’s free community college program. I’ve had to work two and sometimes three jobs. I was delivering pizzas for almost two years. I’d finish my job at school and then rush over and deliver pizzas until 9 o’clock, and then go back to school first thing in the morning. It was exhausting. I’m now earning extra money by riding in the school van with kids who need extra support, and also tutoring during the summer.  

Our district’s educational support personnel are unionized. Ed techs, bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, food service, maintenance, and mechanics are all included. I think a strong union comes from strong numbers. We just signed our collective bargaining agreement today. It took quite a while. With all that’s gone on with inflation and the pandemic and unemployment being so low, we all thought they would see the value in raising our wages to keep skilled staff and attract good people. But negotiations came to a sticking point over money. We weren’t asking for the moon. We were asking to be paid fairly for the work we do.  

Our previous contract had a 25-year pay scale with wage increases every five years. So, we didn’t get more than a tiny 25 cent cost of living increase until we had worked for five years, and we couldn’t get another raise until we hit the 10, 15, 20, or 25 year marks. How long does it take anybody to become proficient at their job? Not 25 years! Shortening the pay scale to get people to the top faster was the main issue we were pushing for. Now we will get a wage increase and a cost of living increase every year, and within three years we’ll have reduced the number of steps from 25 to 20. We also won critical wage increases for some classifications that were extremely underpaid before. 

I don’t think parents and lawmakers see the actual wages our workers are getting paid or understand that there are full-time ed techs like me that are still on MaineCare. I would like them to recognize how little we pay these employees who do so much for our kids. The people I work with — the bus drivers, the food service, the custodians — they’re some of the most amazing people. People ask why we do it and why we stay. It’s the kids. It’s about helping the most kids that we can.