Aides or paraprofessionals are as important as teachers and therapists for children in special education like my 14-year-old son Charlie. They assist with teaching and also with a child’s day-to-day needs of a nitty-gritty sort. But while aides serve such an essential function to help kids like Charlie learn and succeed, their compensation is woefully inadequate. In the case of Kathy Meltsakos, a special ed aide in northeast Massachusetts, her job provided her with a $0.00 paycheck, after paying for health insurance and taxes.
Initially earning $13.74 for a 35-hour week with the Pentucket schools, Meltsakos paid 20 percent of her insurance, which was manageable, and she did that for 10 years until laid off in June 2010. While looking for work she received unemployment benefits.
“I was placed at the bottom of the scale at $10.74 an hour for a 30-hour week. After taxes, I paid 60 percent of my medical insurance. My pay stubs from February to June 24 (the end of the school year) show no net take home pay since February. Oh — and the insurance rates went up in May.”
Meltsakos found herself looking for other jobs, first in a pizza shop, then in a discount store; these jobs did pay a little more, but came without benefits. During the school year, she worked twenty hours a week and added more after school was out. This summer, she’s working with special ed kids for 20 hours a week at $14 an hour. She notes she’s hardly the only one in the same boat.
“This work is my career. I know what I’m doing and am good at what I do. Don’t get me wrong, I learn every day.” When asked about the economics of the job, she doesn’t beat around the bush. “Yes. It should pay better. We have a ways to go on that score. A lot of educating and organizing and bargaining is going to have to get done before any fair salary changes happen.”
It goes without saying Meltsakos should get paid better. Teaching kids with disabilities has numerous challenges. A child like my son requires someone with patience and the ability to be attuned to him (especially as he has minimal speech). Aides may often have to assist a child in a moment of challenging behavior that could involve biting, hitting and more. They also need to understand that such behaviors are not meant to hurt but might be a non-verbal child’s ways of communicating extreme stress, or responding to physical symptoms like a headache or stomachache that their speech cannot express.
Many students with disabilities have medical and health needs and aides often find themselves assisting students with these: Just yesterday my son had a stomach upheaval at school. His teacher and aides helped him clean up and change his clothes and, rather than insisting we pick him up, said he’d be fine for the rest of the day as he didn’t seem sick (we connected a nauseous stomach to the heat we’re having on the East Coast, anxiety over some changes in the daily routine and a morning swim in necessarily heavily chlorinated water). After he got home off the school bus, we found his dirty clothes rinsed out and packed in a plastic bag.
For all the work Meltsakos and aides do, they more than deserve to earn what they merit and, at the very least, to have a paycheck of more than $0.00.
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