Medford School Nurses File for Mediation, Reach Out to Public As Contract Talks Stall Over Nurses Call for Pay Equity With Teachers
RNs Are Grossly Underpaid Compared to Teachers and Other Professionals
MEDFORD, MA. – The Medford school nurses have been forced to file for mediation and fact finding with the State Board of Conciliation and Arbitration as the nurses and administration have been unable to come to terms on a new contract that would bring the nurses up to parity with the teachers and other professionals in the school system. Under the school system’s last proposal, the nurses would still be paid 20 percent less than teachers and other professionals in the school system (such as librarians and adjustment counselors).
“We feel we have a strong case to make in mediation given the vital role of school nurses in our school system, and in view of the fact that school nurses have the exact same level of education and certification requirements as other professionals in the system, yet are not paid as professionals,” said Karen Roberto, RN, chair of the nurses’ local bargaining unit and a nurse at the Columbus Elementary School. “The 10 school nurses are responsible for providing full nursing coverage to 10 schools, housing a total population of more than 5,000 students who depend on the professional health services we deliver to be safe, stay well and be prepared to learn.”
The nurses, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, have been in negotiations for their new contract with the school system since May 29, 2007. To date, six sessions have been held. The nurses filed for mediation in December after talks stalled over the issue of salary, specifically after the school committee rejected a compromise proposal by the nurses that would have delayed movement by the nurses to the teacher’s salary scale until the third year of the agreement. Instead, the city made a final salary offer which would leave the nurses far below their goal of pay equity with the teachers and other professionals.
“We found the school committee’s position to be both surprising and discouraging given that we just held a productive session where we were given the opportunity to present our case for professional equity and that case had been well received by our counterparts across the table,” Roberto explained. “They acknowledged our professional status and they appeared to recognize the vital role we play in keeping children safe, healthy and ready to learn.”
In addition to taking their case to mediation, the nurses also plan to begin reaching out to the public, particularly parents of the students in the Medford school system.
“Parents need to know that if we can’t recruit and retain quality school nurses to take care of their children, it is their children who will be placed in jeopardy,” Roberto said.
The Nurses’ Case for Professional Pay Equity
According to Roberto, today’s school nurses are highly-trained professionals who care for a population of students with varied and complex health needs. School Nursing is a specialized field. In fact, the professional requirements to be a school nurse are higher than those required of nurses in any other setting, including hospitals. These skills include first aid and emergency care; psychiatric nursing; acute and chronic-disease management; triage nursing; public health; management of numerous medications; medication counseling and medical device management. The school nurse is required to have knowledge of preschool to adult nursing care. In addition, the Department of Education requires the exact same licensure requirements for both school nurses and teachers.
According to the State Department of Public Health, at least one in 12 Massachusetts students is actively limited or suffering from fair or poor health. In Medford the population of children with special health needs is higher than the staff average. In fact, one in five children (1,000 out of 5,000 students) has special health care needs that require the care and monitoring of the 10 professional school nurses. Children not only have asthma, attention deficit disorder, migraine headaches, epilepsy, heart conditions, diabetes, life threatening allergies, arthritis, hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and other chronic illnesses, but students are also coming to school needing colostomy care, catheterization, intravenous medications, naso-gastric feeding and other complex procedures.
“We administer and monitor a host of medications to students every day. In addition, we also provide health education to students to try and teach them healthy lifestyles as well as how to manage their illnesses. And of course, the school nurse is on-hand to provide acute and episodic emergency care should your child suffer a serious injury or unexpected illness on school grounds,” Roberto said.
For example, last year Medford school nurses averaged more than 370 office visits per day and administered an average of 125 medications per day.
A recent front-page story in USA Today on school nursing highlighted the ultimate value of school nurses and the argument for professional parity with teachers. It reported that if a teacher makes a mistake or an error in their lessons, it can “have a negative impact on the child’s future.” However, if a nurse makes a mistake or error in judgment, “maybe a child doesn’t have a future.”
Nurses Treated Like Second Class Citizens by School System
According to the nurses, as their job has become increasingly complex and more demanding the school system has failed to provide a salary scale commensurate with their professional level and their contributions to the school system. Bachelor’s-prepared school nurses in Medford at the top of the salary scale make just over $51,000 per year; while teachers, with comparable education and experience, make $61,000 plus per year.
More than 82 school systems in the state offer some form of pay equity, including a number of school systems in the area. This includes Arlington, Cambridge, Boston, Malden, Minuteman Vocational, Winchester and Woburn.
“The lack of a professional salary for registered nurses is not only unfair, it has proven to be a barrier to the recruitment and retention of staff,” Roberto said. “
In recent years, we’ve had a hard time convincing nurses to work here given the low salary scale, especially when they can go to neighboring school systems where they can be paid like professionals, or to hospitals where they can make significantly more money.” Roberto points out that the impact of the salary increase the nurses are seeking is minimal given the number of nurses and the size of the Medford school budget. “The entire cost of our wage proposal represents an increase of $31,000 to a total budget of $44 million. That’s less than one-tenth of one percent, and under our proposal, that wouldn’t happen until the third year of our contract.”