“Sorry, it’s not in your contract”: NHPS paraprofessionals face COVID-19 quarantines without paid leave
Since the start of the new school year, paraprofessionals who test positive or need to quarantine have not been receiving paid time off, despite NHPS promises.
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
When Alicia Norris, a paraprofessional at the Davis School, received her pay stub for the first two weeks of January, she was shocked: she had not received pay for seven days since the return from break. After testing positive for COVID-19, she was required to quarantine and thus took seven days off from work in the first two weeks of school. But she expected to receive paid time off, as the New Haven Public Schools system had promised staff in August.
“It’s heartbreaking because I love these kids, but I need to also provide for my family,” Norris said. “It’s scary to me to think that I might have to make a decision one morning that I have a sore throat, but I have to go to work because I’m not going to get paid but I might just be bringing this to a child who is unvaccinated.”
She’s not the only paraprofessional in this situation.
Despite reassurances from New Haven Public Schools, paraprofessionals across New Haven Public Schools who have contracted COVID-19 have received no paid leave for their period of quarantine or isolation since the start of the school year.
NHPS employs roughly 430 paraprofessionals, or paras, who include “classroom staff, assistant teachers, support staff, head start teachers, retention specialists, parent liaisons and outreach workers.” All paras are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local 3249.
According to Hyclis Williams, president of local 3249, since the start of the 2021-2022 school year paras across NHPS have been forced to use their personal time off or sick days instead of COVID-19 specific paid leave. Last school year, they were able to receive paid leave. Teachers across NHPS have continued to receive paid leave this year.
“The Board of Education refuses to pay,” Williams told the News. “They had stated in their presentation before schools opened [in August 2021] that they would have supportive paid sick leave and policies and practices that would encourage workers to stay home without fear of retaliation, loss of pay, loss of employment level. Lots of people have been in a situation where they have lost all pay because they could not return to work.”
The dispute between paraprofessionals and NHPS centers around an Aug. 23 BOE meeting where city and district leaders provided a presentation detailing the city and district’s policies on paid leave for “workers” in the district. At the meeting, city Public Health Director Maritza Bond presented slides which stated that NHPS will “allow flexible, non-punitive and supportive paid sick leave policies and practices that encourage sick workers to stay home without fear of retaliation, loss of pay or loss of employment level.”
But once the school year began, paras who tested positive and took time off did not receive this promised paid leave, and they reached out to Williams. On Nov. 23, Williams emailed NHPS Superintendent Iline Tracey about the issue. Williams was told that since paid time off for COVID-19 was not included in the paraprofessional contract, which was negotiated in 2019, the district could not provide them with the same paid time off that teachers, who had their contracts renewed during the pandemic and had included a provision on the issue, were receiving.
Norris and Williams both spoke at Monday evening’s BOE meeting during public comment and were supported by teacher’s union President Leslie Blatteau ’97 GRD ’07, who said that she “stood in solidarity” with the paraprofessionals.
After the public comment during the BOE meeting, Tracey said that she “hears the concerns of the paraprofessionals,” but that “this is a broader issue.”
“If we talk about equity, we should include workers in the other unions who have to quarantine,” Tracey wrote in an email to the News. “The only union who has such time protection for any pandemic situation is the teachers’ union, since it is in their contract. Last year, under the governor’s executive order, this was not an issue. We are not under such an order for this year. However, it is something I can investigate from the state level.”
Williams also asked if NHPS could give some of the city’s COVID-19 relief money to cover paid time off for paras, she said.
“I did ask Dr. Tracey to look into the possibility of using some of the COVID relief money to offset any extra costs that they incur because of this,” Williams said. “She said she would look into it, and I asked her again and she said she didn’t have any feedback from it. And, so when the paras make a complaint her response usually is saying she’s sorry, but it is not in the contract.”
Tracey told the News that she knew “there were suggestions by the paraprofessionals union leader that we pay from the grant funds we received, but the funds we received were not given for this purpose.”
The paraprofessional, who was granted anonymity due to fear of loss of livelihood, told the News that they had tested positive for COVID-19 before Thanksgiving break and had not received pay for two weeks, and that it had placed a “great strain” on their ability to provide for their family.
“I’ve literally had to deplete my savings, and my checking account to make sure that I provide for my children,” they said. “Because you’re not a teacher, you don’t get those extra benefits, you don’t get the respect that you deserve because they think, ‘oh you’re just a para.’”
Sadiyya Martinez, a paraprofessional working at King Robinson school, told the News that she could not come into work for the first two days after winter break because she had contracted COVID-19. She attempted to use her sick days to cover those days but said that her school’s secretary informed her that her sick days would not kick in until the third week of January.
“It’s sad because I think I go above and beyond,” Martinez said. “I do more than my contract and try to go above and beyond what’s written into my contract, but I feel like I’m not appreciated. I’m living paycheck to paycheck and this doesn’t seem to make it easier.”
Williams estimated that at least 30 paras have already been in similar situations and that there could potentially be more people who she does not know about or who will receive their pay stubs soon.
According to Williams, the paraprofessional union is looking to bargain and negotiate with the district so that her union members can get the same protections that teachers receive.
New Haven Public Schools employs approximately 4,000 people.