Non-instructional union Riverhead employees demand better pay

Editor’s Note: We previously stated Ms. Cain makes a yearly salary of $41,200. That number was inaccurate and has been corrected.

With contract negotiations underway and the expiration of the current agreement looming, members of Civil Service Employees Association Unit 8792 are urging the Riverhead Central School District to consider salary increases and improved benefits for non-instructional employees. 

The CSEA represents approximately 375 non-teaching employees districtwide, including custodians, food service workers, special education aides, technical support aides, security guards, bus drivers, safety monitors and clerical staff. 

The current contract between the school district and CSEA workers began July 1, 2019, and expires June 30, 2024. 

Sonya Johnson, president of the district’s CSEA, has stressed the importance of the negotiations and need for salary hikes at previous Board of Education. On April 16 at Riverhead High School, Ms. Johnson was joined by several more advocates. 

Dozens of union members rallied at the school board meeting, sporting matching T-shirts with the slogan: “We Make School Happen.” Each speaker urged board members to ensure fair pay, affordable health care and adequate compensation for their contributions to the district’s success. 

“Our members are a vital part of the day-to-day, to make sure school runs smoothly for all,” Ms. Johnson said. 

One of the biggest sticking points concerns pay rates for new hires compared to those of long-term employees, many of whom are locked in at specific increases per the current contract. Under that agreement, workers hired after Sept. 1, 2020, are paid at the “Bronze Level” of compensation, while those hired before that date receive higher “Platinum Level” wages. Without a successor agreement, bronze level employees will stay at the current designation for the duration of their employment. 

Bonnie Cain, a cook in the school’s food service department, said there are roughly 30 food service staff members who work 10 months a year and clock between 4 and 6.5 hours daily.

According to a personnel report from August 2023, Ms. Cain was hired to work 6.5 hours a day during the 2023-24 school year at a bronze rate of $24.76 an hour, which comes to an estimated $27,000 annually. Ms. Cain said when a new food service worker is hired, their entry-level pay is typically the same as that of a longtime employee “who has been there for years.” 

Food service workers received a 19-cent bump to their hourly pay rates — from $18.67 in 2021-22 to $19.04 an hour in 2022-23 — even as the number of meals served increased by more that 100,000 during that time, from roughly 716,000 in to some 821,000, Ms. Cain told the school board.

“We are barely over minimum wage,” Ms. Cain said. “Something has to change, and the cost of living is going up, hopefully our pay will, too.”

Linda Donagher has worked as a technical support aide at Phillips Avenue Elementary School for 10 years, alongside eight others in her position across the district and four computer lab aides. Collectively, they maintain the instructional technology implemented in all seven school district buildings. 

Ms. Donagher said when the CSEA contract was adopted in 2019, only 250 technical “devices” were in use at Phillips Avenue. That number skyrocketed to 744 devices in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the district to implement remote instruction. She added that the technical support team had to prepare and distribute more than 5,000 devices to equip every student in the district. They are also expected to oversee other projects, such as managing websites, providing technology for school assemblies and setting up live-streams for graduations. 

Ms. Donagher said their current salaries do not reflect those myriad responsibilities and noted the stark difference in compensation between employees doing the same job. Those at the bronze level, she said, earn roughly $26,722 per year, while platinum level staff earn nearly $35,259 annually. 

According to the Department of Civil Service, a technical support aide in Suffolk County can typically earn between $33,120 and $54,528 a year — or $15 to $26 per hour. Ms. Donagher said the starting hourly wage in the Riverhead school district is $19. 

“My technical support staff and computer lab colleagues are constantly asked to take on more technology responsibilities and to do so with enthusiasm and a very positive attitude,” Ms. Donagher said. “Most of our technical support aides’ expected salary has no path to advancement — the bronze level was put in place when we were responsible for a small fraction of what we do today.” 

With student enrollment increasing year-over-year, Kim Kehoe, a head custodian at Aquebogue Elementary School, said work has also piled up for the district’s 50 custodial employees. As a result, she said, “morale is at an all-time low” and it is becoming more difficult to retain employees as the cost of living continues to rise. 

“As a member of a crucial workforce that often goes unnoticed and undervalued,” Ms. Kehoe said, “we literally can no longer afford to be forgotten.” 

Sonya Johnson, president of the CSEA Non-Instructional Unit 8792, led the rally at the April 16 school board meeting.

Laura Jacques, a special education department secretary for almost two decades, said she has been told repeatedly that the district does not have the resources to properly compensate her and the other six special education secretaries.

Ms. Jacques said she went from working at home in March 2020 to being pulled back into school buildings three months later to ensure every student’s annual review meeting was held and the district was compliant with state requirements. She said they were praised for their “dedication” during that time, but not rewarded monetarily.

“We were told that we were not eligible for any COVID compensation,” Ms. Jacques said. “We understandably got the impression that our health and safety were not a priority.” 

The district’s transportation department employs more than 120 school bus drivers, monitors, mechanics and safety officers. Depending on their job title, these employees are paid hourly salaries of between $17 and $26 an hour. 

Richard Lindor, a school bus driver, said he and his colleagues are often “teased” by job openings at other school districts and with bus companies that offer higher pay. 

“We worry about making ends meet with rising costs of health care, basic groceries and even gas to get us to and from work,” Mr. Lindor said. “With this worry, we are forced to work multiple jobs and have multiple streams of income just to survive. Our loyalty is to the children of this great district, whom we love so much, and it would be hard for us to turn our backs on them.” 

Colin Palmer, Riverhead school board president, declined to comment on the ongoing contract negotiations.