In the midst of the furor over the Chicago Teachers Union strike, the media has only just begun to focus on the other union involved: SEIU 73. This union represents special education classroom assistants (SECAs), bus aides and other non-teaching staff. Yesterday, Chalkbeat Chicago told the stories of bus aides and custodial workers who earn less than $20,000 a year. They’re heartbreaking.
But even the stories that aren’t so dire offer food for thought about how our city works.
Last night, at an SEIU 73 media event at St. Benedict the African Church in Englewood, I met SECA Andre Henry, who has one of those not-so-dire stories. Henry lives in Bronzeville with his wife and two kids. Both he and his wife work; he works two jobs. One of them is at Christopher Elementary in Brighton Park, where more than half the students have physical disabilities and health impairments. For his work as a SECA, Henry earns $39,000 a year.
Henry’s typical day covers a lot of ground. He helps kids in wheelchairs get off and on the bus. He tutors kids when they get stuck on how to do an assignment. He helps severely disabled kids manage feeding tubes and go to the bathroom. Although SECAs are required to focus on their assigned children, they can and do keep an eye on other kids, both for behavior management and learning.
He got started in this work back in 2006. Back then his job at Christopher paid $14.45 an hour–just under $29,000 a year. It was more than he made at his other job–working at the ball park where the White Sox play. Henry still works there, too. Being a SECA still beats the pay at Guaranteed Rate Field.
“I’ve been able to make a living with it,” he says. But it’s a tight squeeze to make that living.
His two children are young. The younger one is still in day care. His older child just started kindergarten at Agassiz Elementary. During the strike, she’s home with his mother. A strike would help him help his children, he says. “You want to be able to pay for stuff like swimming lessons. We’re pretty good savers, but we have to watch our money very carefully. Living in the city is very expensive.”
Henry recognizes the consequences of working in a care job dominated by women. “It’s a female-dominated profession, just like teaching, so it’s undervalued.”
And, he says, it’s a job that needs gender equity. “We need more guys in this work. You have to be strong to get kids in and out of wheelchairs to get them on the bus. A lot of guys don’t want to work with kids. I’m trying to convince a guy at my other job to do it. He says to me, ‘Dre, I don’t know about kids.'”
Andre Henry Fights for Respect for Himself and Kids with Disabilities
To Henry, the strike is as much about respect as it is about pay. “They don’t respect the work we do. They think any unskilled labor can do this job. They don’t really understand what we do.”
In Henry’s view (and that of many others), the district hasn’t yet fixed that problem. “I know we have kids who have a dedicated one-to-one aide in their IEPs and they’re not getting it. I know our principal is fighting with [the central office department that handles special education] to get us another SECA.”
When I asked him how he hopes the strike will be resolved, Henry’s had a ready answer “My hope is that our incomes will be lifted so we can be more comfortable, that resources will be put into these schools, especially in Black and Brown neighborhoods and for special needs children. If it was about the kids, you would put more money into these jobs. You would invest in them.”