NEW YORK, N.Y.— “Last year, I worked in a vestibule,” elementary school occupational therapist Hannah Fleury tells LaborPress. When she complained, she says, the school found a space for her in the cafeteria.

“In no major city do OTs and PTs receive less pay than their colleagues in special education” – New York City occupational and physical therapists take their fight for a fair contract to the steps of City Hall this week. Photo by Steve Wishnia.

Fleury, a member of the United Federation of Teachers executive board, was among about 25 to 30 occupational and physical therapists who rallied outside the city Department of Education’s Manhattan offices on June 13, demanding “pay parity, resources, and respect,” in the contract the UFT is now negotiating with the city.

The union represents about 2,700 occupational and physical therapists in city schools. Their job is to help children with disabilities become more independent and function better in the school environment. That might include hand-strengthening exercises to help them write, says longtime physical therapist Chris Griffin, who’s worked for the Department of Education for 13 years. Or it might be helping children who have difficulties with fine motor skills, organizational skills, or adjusting to classroom routines and transitions, says Fleury.

“In no major city do OTs and PTs receive less pay than their colleagues in special education,” occupational therapist Marilena Marchetti, a UFT delegate, said in a statement. “It’s time to end the pay and resource disparity OTs and PTs endure and prove to parents that disabled students’ needs matter.”

Occupational and physical therapists get a higher starting salary than teachers, school psychologists, guidance counselors, and social workers, but it rises at a much slower rate. An experienced therapist can start out as high as $86,000 a year, $10,000 more than the maximum for a teacher or a speech-language pathologist. But social workers and psychologists, guidance counselors, and teachers can reach $100,000 after six to 10 years on the job, while therapists need at least 15 years. After 20 years, the difference is more than $15,000.

The actual disparities are higher, the therapists say, because those numbers represent the absolute maximum salary possible, and are “probably higher than any OT/PT actually gets paid.”

There are other discrepancies, they add. Teachers and other special-education professionals get a 50-minute paid lunch break; occupational and physical therapists get 30 minutes unpaid. They get a $2,322 for earning a master’s degree, while teachers get $7,040. They aren’t eligible for “line of duty” coverage if injured on the job, and they don’t get “per session” pay for working outside of school hours. 

That includes the five hours of training to detect “implicit bias” now required by the city, says occupational therapist Melissa Williams, leader of the UFT’s OT/PT chapter, and annual meetings of the team handling a child’s Individualized Education Program. 

“It’s a team process,” says Griffin. “We want to support the goals that they’re highlighting.” But not getting paid, she says, means either volunteering or not going.

Space is another issue. The UFT contract guarantees therapists adequate workspace, Williams says, but what that means in practice hasn’t been defined yet. Meanwhile, she told the crowd, classes are being held in basements, as they were in the 1960s, as depicted in the documentary Crip Camp.

“Start with respect. When an OT or a PT has to work in a basement, that’s not respect,” physical therapist Alison Loebel told the rally. She said she’s had to do sessions on stairway landings.

Williams said their struggle lies at the intersection of labor rights, civil rights, and disability rights.

The UFT’s contract expires in September. Therapists are part of a “functional chapter,” part of the main contract but with separate provisions to cover issues specific to their jobs. In 2019, they voted to reject the city’s proposed contract. 

“The more support we get from the UFT leadership, the better,” says Griffin, “but ultimately, we’re negotiating with the city.”

This year’s talks are taking place under a budget, passed by the City Council June 13, that will cut the Department of Education’s funding by $600 million. Mayor Eric Adams blamed losses in enrollment and the fading of federal pandemic aid. “My administration is dedicated to increasing funding this fall if student enrollment rebounds,” he said in a statement.

The city “should not be forcing schools to implement sharp cuts to their budgets this summer” while it still has a large share of the $7 billion it is receiving in federal pandemic aid, Comptroller Brad Lander responded.

Councilmember Shahana Hanif (D-Brooklyn), who voted for the budget, issued a statement calling the education cuts “the really ugly part,” adding that “this budget lays bare the deep problems with mayoral control and the established archaic school funding formulas.”

“We need to be able to do our jobs with the best tools and resources, and for us, this means pay parity, resources, and respect,” says Susan Paul, an occupational therapist for elementary and middle schools in southeast Brooklyn. “We see it in every child that we touch, evidence of our excellence.”


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