‘Bill of Rights’ would fund $25 minimum wage, health benefits for hourly school staff

Sara Rapp, a school cook on strike in Hastings, testified at the Capitol in support of the ESP Bill of Rights.

As striking food service workers in Hastings put a spotlight on hardships faced by some of the lowest-paid school employees, state lawmakers this week debated bold, new legislation to lift standards for all hourly school workers.

The “Education Support Professionals’ Bill of Rights,” introduced by DFLers in both the House and Senate, would establish a minimum wage of $25 for paraprofessionals, bus drivers, clerical workers and other hourly employees.

It would also require schools to offer affordable, year-round health coverage and to sustain hourly workers’ pay during e-learning days, among other provisions.

To cover schools’ increased costs, the measure would provide new state funding – beyond increases to the per-pupil formula – determined by a district’s ESP staffing needs.

Rep. Brad Tabke of Shakopee, lead author in the House, touted the bill as a matter of fairness for the trusted adults who work in their communities’ school systems.

“All throughout the summer (while) talking to folks, I ran into dozens and dozens of paras, janitors, bus drivers, lunch workers that are really struggling,” he told members of the House Education Finance Committee on Tuesday. “As a state we should be valuing that work.”

Senate author Alice Mann (D-Edina) said school districts need new, dedicated funding to make their hourly positions competitive with other employers.

“You can walk down the street to McDonald’s and get paid more to work there than in our schools taking care of our children, feeding our children, transporting our children and helping to educate them,” Mann said during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

Labor market data shows the job vacancy rate at school districts across the nation has been rising for a decade. In Minnesota, where overall workforce participation is higher than the national average, employment in school districts has dropped by 6.4% since October 2019, according to data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute’s Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN).

“There’s a lot of reasons why this could be, but the most simple and obvious one is compensation,” EARN policy coordinator Dave Kamper said. “Workers are leaving ESP jobs for higher-paying gigs elsewhere.”

Rep. Brad Tabke holds a press conference with school employees after committee hearings on the ESP Bill of Rights.

Hourly school workers who want to continue serving students have found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, as several ESPs – including one food service worker on strike for higher wages – testified at the Capitol.

Sara Rapp, a cook at Hastings High School, earns just $15.05 per hour in her fourth year with the district. A $10-per-hour raise, she said, “would mean we could take care of ourselves and our families with the same care and compassion we take care of our students.”

Staffing shortfalls in her district have gotten so bad, Rapp told lawmakers, that three employees recently were tasked with doing the work of eight.

“And we know it’s not just us,” said Rapp, a member of Service Employees Local 284. “Our strike shows the crisis facing school workers because of the low wages and disrespect we are facing. We need to fix this before the staffing crisis gets worse, so we can do what we do best – caring for our students.”

Carloline Long, a special-ed teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools and member of Education Minnesota, said most hourly school employees work multiple jobs to cover rising costs. Health care costs, in particular, have risen faster than ESPs’ wages, she said.

“I believe everyone who works with children should have access to affordable health care,” Long said. “Due to the low wages, some ESPs will work all their hours in one pay period and not have anything to show for it because every dime they made went to pay for health insurance offered by their employer.”

In addition to a $25 minimum wage and affordable health care, the ESP Bill of Rights would require schools to dedicate two days of paid training to all school staff members who work with students, and to build time into special education teachers’ schedule for managing their students’ individualized education program (IEP).

Annie Gibson, a paraprofessional in the South Washington County Schools, said steps to recruit, retain and treat ESPs like the professionals they are will ultimately benefit students.

“Our children with IEPs are so much more successful when they have consistency in staffing,” Gibson said. “I take pride in building my relationships with each child, and I love being a part of a child’s growth, education, and social and emotional wellbeing.

“We need to make this a profession people seek out and stay in for a long time. This legislation would be a great start.”

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