What NYC school therapists are fighting for

November 15, 2018

Hannah Fleury, a UFT member and an occupational therapist in the New York City schools, explains why her chapter of the union rejected the city’s contract offer.

ANGRY THAT our union once again failed to address our demands, occupational therapists (OTs) and physical therapists (PTs) in New York City’s public schools rejected the latest contract, sending United Federation of Teachers (UFT) negotiators back to the bargaining table.

The rest of the UFT’s membership approved contracts covering other job titles by a wide margin, leaving OTs and PTs to figure out how to wage an ongoing fight.

The negative vote by the UFT’s OT/PT functional chapter represents years of frustration over lack of pay parity and lack of respect from the UFT leadership and the city.

For example, speech therapists, who have similar working conditions to OTs and PTs, are given an additional $7,040 in compensation upon completion of a master’s degree, while therapists only receive an additional $1,505 for this same degree. The salary scale for speech therapists maxes out more than $27,000 higher than for OTs and PTs.

Physical therapists lead a staff exercise in Queens, New York
Physical therapists lead a staff exercise in Queens, New York (Jonathan Fickies | UFT)

Additionally, speech therapists were paid $5,000 for the use of their National Provider Identifier (NPI) numbers to bill Medicaid for the services they provide — OTs and PTs weren’t compensated at all. While it seems that this issue is closed after some failed legal efforts, the resentment it stirred up remains.

OTs and PTs are also part of a different pension system than teachers, with a lower percentage payout during retirement, which exacerbates the pay differential.

The New York Department of Education (DOE) finally agreed to a parental leave deal for UFT members last spring, but OTs and PTs still aren’t eligible for Family and Leave Medical Act (FMLA) benefits because without working the summer session therapists are 37 hours short of the hours required to qualify.

Since the DOE started denying FMLA applications for therapists during the 2016-17 school year, solving this issue has been pressing.

Over the course of the last year, anger over these issues has been expressed through increased attendance at chapter meetings, on a closed Facebook group, and through an anonymous group known as John Doe that sends out e-mails to a large section of the chapter.

Some have argued that the solution to the pay disparity is applying for pedagogue status. This would potentially create new responsibilities such as observations, having to apply for tenure and being asked to cover classes. On the other hand, changing the status could open up new opportunities for salary negotiations.

The chapter had informed its members in April 2017 that pedagogue status was being pursued, but then nothing came of it. In the end, it seems like a bureaucratic solution to a more fundamental problem.

On the contract, some argued for a “yes” vote in order to pursue pedagogue status. Others argued for a “yes” vote because they felt they would rather take the proposed raises and wait to fight in the next contract.

AT A chapter meeting about the contract with UFT President Michael Mulgrew as members were voting on whether to ratify, Mulgrew stood by his claim that the union pursued the OT/PT demands, but the city refused to give anything because of the salary increases in the 2014 contract.

When pushed on the issue of pay parity, Mulgrew gave more circular reasoning. He said that therapists in the DOE system make more than therapists who work for other institutions, but this is also true of social workers and guidance counselors, whose pay exceeds that of therapists.

After previously implying that the state education officials would never grant us pedagogue status, Mulgrew showed a renewed enthusiasm for this solution, advocating a “yes” vote to free up the union up to pursue this status. Members at the meeting weren’t buying his promises.

At the meeting, there was also a series of thinly veiled threats about the consequences of rejecting the contract offer. Mulgrew told members that we would wait two to four years to even begin negotiations. Given that the OT/PT chapter makes up only about 2,700 members of the UFT’s total membership of 185,000, the union leadership has repeatedly held this over the chapter’s head.

The argument goes that if the chapter rejects the contract, the DOE would have little motivation to negotiate anything better just for our chapter. The “no” vote was an act of frustration and defiance in the face of the constant threats that therapists don’t matter enough to the union or the city to make it worth the UFT’s time to fight for them.

As John Doe, the anonymous therapist with the e-mail list, put it in announcing their own decision to vote no: “The hope was that with a friendly governor, mayor, chancellor, prosperous economy and larger representation during negotiations, this would be our year. And yet, despite all of that, we still ended up with an underwhelming contract. What else can we possibly do?”

The chapter is well aware that it has embarked on a journey into the unknown. The “no” vote is an embarrassment to Mulgrew, and the chapter will need to make its demands visible and step up its activity.

The chapter is fairly disorganized at present. Its members are dispersed throughout the city’s five boroughs, and typically, there’s no more than one OT and one PT per school. Historically, the chapter has held meetings once a month and rotated the location through the boroughs.

The initial signs from the newly elected chapter chair suggest that he has no plans to lead the rank-and-file rebellion we need. His e-mails have been short and lacked any plan for action.

THERAPISTS, HOWEVER, are beginning to meet, organize, debate and discuss next steps.

We will need to build solidarity with teachers, paraprofessionals and other school staff, as well as parents. While the city may not value the work that therapists perform for students with disabilities, school staff and parents do. Rank-and-file groups of teachers, such as the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) and Teachers United, have already offered their solidarity and support.

To make the chapter’s demands visible and increase leverage in negotiations, the chapter can draw on the experience of the red-state teachers’ rebellions earlier this year, during which teachers organized walk-ins and RedForEd days, and built community solidarity to overcome their union’s historic weaknesses — and they won through protests and strikes what years of negotiations had failed to deliver.

OTs and PTs will need to build support in their schools by discussing the contract issues with their co-workers. The monthly delegate assemblies are also an important place to advocate for OT/PT chapter demands and to pressure the union leadership to aggressively advocate for our demands at the bargaining table.

While the campaign will have to put pressure on the union to represent and fight for therapists’ demands, it will also have to have a strong “stay union” component.

In the post-Janus era, many therapists believe not paying their union dues will teach the union a lesson. But this would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The role of progressives in the chapter should be to argue for fighting to harness the power of the union, not give up on the important rights that union membership protects.

OTs and PTs for a Fair Contract is a new group being initiated. The group’s first meeting — planned for December 1 — can hopefully cohere the chapter by giving it an organizational voice, pushing forward on grassroots actions to mobilize the membership, publicizing the chapter’s demands and pressuring the city and union to move forward on negotiations.

As the red-state teachers demonstrated, rank-and-file solidarity can win when recalcitrant union leaderships, hostile district administrators and indifferent legislators stand in the way.

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