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Newark Public Schools promised $1K bonus for employees but per diem staff say they were left out

A white building is seen with a blue canopy and a sign that reads “Newark Teachers Union”

Newark per diem employees say they were left out of a $1,000 “Let’s Go To Work!” payment given to full-time staff.

David Handschuh for Chalkbeat

At the last Newark board of education meeting of the year, dozens of teachers wore green — a symbol, they said, of bonuses from which they had been excluded.

Some of the teachers who attended Tuesday’s meeting are per diem employees — staffers that work as needed for the school district — who say they were left out of a $1,000 “Let’s Go To Work!” payment given to full-time staff. The Newark Teachers Union says the bonus should include per diem staff who have worked during the pandemic and beyond, but district leaders argue that the union did not negotiate the bonus for them.

“From my understanding that was a negotiation that was supposed to happen with your union rep so we will see what is supposed to happen,” said Board President Dawn Haynes during the December board meeting. “It was not negotiated for the per diem.”

Superintendent Roger León announced the $1,000 “Let’s Go To Work!” payment during a convocation held in September for all district employees as he thanked staff for their “dedication, contributions, courage, and commitment to excellence during these most unusual times,” according to a press release the school district issued following the event. 

In an email to Chalkbeat Newark on Wednesday, district spokesperson Nancy Deering said the “Let’s Go To Work!” payment was a “retention strategy for full-time employees.”

“All staff who worked during the pandemic were compensated for their services and we remain extremely appreciative of all that they did during the most difficult of times,” Deering added. 

Newark shut down schools from April 2020 until September 2021, when the return to in-person learning prompted concern among parents, students, and teachers who were at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus during that time. Shortly after, the district was forced to shut down schools again as COVID-19 cases surged in December of that year. 

Arie Fiekowsky started working as a teacher for Newark in September 2020 when schools were still shut down and virtual learning became the new normal. As a new teacher, Fiekowsky upgraded her home internet to the highest speed to avoid interruptions in her connection, she said at the board meeting. Once schools slowly reopened, she went back to teaching in person but got sick with COVID, she added. 

“All this to say, as a young person with little savings that $1,000 was very important to me,” Fiekowsky told board members. 

The Newark Teachers Union has roughly 2,000 per diem classroom aides and teachers who are members, said Michael Maillaro, the union’s director of research and communication.

During the convocation, León welcomed 600 new teachers, according to the district. But from May to October of this year, 325 employees resigned, compared to the 268 instructional staffers who quit in 2021 during the same months, according to data from the teachers union. The union also counted 83 retirements between May and October of this year, compared to 74 retirements in 2021 during the same period. 

In November, another 41 members resigned, according to union data.

Newark Teachers Union president John Abeigon said the bonuses announced at the beginning of the year “were not part of negotiations when the current union contract reopened last spring.” 

“These bonuses come from the superintendent, not from us,” Abeigon said. “Why would the union do that to its own members? Our sole way of raising money is through union dues, and the board wants to say we would neglect our very own members?”

Alina McKnight also spoke during Tuesday’s meeting and said her workload “is just the same as a teacher” and her duties are the same as other teachers. McKnight is a per diem bilingual chemistry high school teacher who was hired in 2021. 

“If you could go ahead and look at the policy again of what it is to be a per diem teacher, I would love for you to do that because we definitely need the guidance and assistance,” said McKnight during public comments. 

A per diem classroom aide at an elementary school in the district who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation told Chalkbeat Newark that “there are a lot of injustices going on here” and she is afraid to speak out for her rights. 

“We’re the ones that live here in Newark and we were the ones working on the frontlines when we were in the middle of a pandemic — we never stopped working,” the classroom aide said. “So why are we being ignored?” 

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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