As our country and our state emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, a disconnect between available jobs and workers willing to accept poverty-level compensation is hitting home. Potential steps forward for many workers in retail and other private sector fields could threaten school districts’ ability to recruit and retain vital support staff workers who will have more options for better-paying jobs.
We have seen story after story about labor shortages, with employers bemoaning the fact that they can’t find workers. After years of barely paying subsistence-level wages, some employers are having to react as the supply and demand pendulum swings toward workers. Businesses are upping hourly rates, offering signing bonuses, providing more flexible schedules and making benefits more readily available. These are all positive developments for many employees, but will Idaho schools be able to keep up?
Idaho school support staff, or classified workers, have historically been among the lowest-compensated employees in any field. Many live paycheck to paycheck, work multiple jobs or rely on public assistance to get by. These workers are an integral part of the education team, helping provide a wide variety of student services. They are also among the most dedicated, caring individuals you would ever hope to meet. We see how they pour themselves into their work helping students and we are proud to call them our colleagues.
Idaho public schools are consistently underfunded, ranking last in the nation in per student investment. We already don’t have enough personnel to keep up with rapidly increasing enrollment. Many districts can’t (or won’t) pay a living wage to custodians, nutrition staff, bus drivers, paraeducators and other key classified employees. This problem is only going to get worse as jobs in other sectors see increased compensation and better perks.
To make matters worse, housing costs in Idaho are rising at an astronomical pace. Our dedicated support staff workers are having an even more difficult time finding rental properties they can afford and, for most, home ownership is impossible. For many, the math just doesn’t add up. They aren’t paid enough to cover basic living expenses, so they find other jobs or leave the workforce entirely. Either way, our students and schools are deprived of workers who are an essential part of the education team. It would be a tragedy to see our support staff leaving en masse for jobs in food service, retail outlets, call centers, fulfillment facilities and other options.
The time to act is now, both at the state level and among our local school districts. We must recognize the changing workforce dynamic and provide funding that will enable classified staff to continue doing the work they love — helping students. The COVID-19 crisis has shown us that these workers are invaluable. It is now a very competitive market for employees who have more and better options. The new reality is that our state’s elected officials and our public schools need to demonstrate how much they appreciate the incredible contributions of our classified staff — and the sooner the better.
Layne McInelly is president of the Idaho Education Association.