Occupational therapist Larissa Gomes has seen the effects of the pandemic on students with disabilities, so she jumped at the chance to offer extra sessions as part of an Education Department program that provides make-up services outside of the regular school day.
But for four months, the Education Department failed to pay her for most of the hours she worked, which amounts to more than $5,000. After putting her daughter’s tuition on a credit card, she decided she was done with the extra sessions after school and on Saturdays.
“I couldn’t continue working without being paid,” she said. “There was never an explanation as to why the DOE took so long.”
Gomes filed a grievance with the United Federation of Teachers and was recently paid for the hours she worked, but has no plans to return to the program.
With billions in federal relief funds, the city’s education department has earmarked $200 million to provide students with small-group reading and math lessons in addition to therapies that have been missed or hard to come by. provide for long periods of distance learning. Despite the influx of resources, the city’s occupational therapists and physical therapists have struggled to get paid on time since the recovery services program launched on most campuses in December, according to therapists and union officials.
It’s unclear how many therapists like Gomes have left the special education recovery program due to payment issues. Education Ministry officials did not say how many were not paid properly or left the program for this reason. Yet payment issues may make some therapists hesitant to enroll in similar programs, potentially leaving students without access to services and complicating future efforts to provide additional assistance to students with disabilities.
“A lot of therapists know it’s the DOE’s MO, so they’re not taking work,” said Melissa Williams, occupational therapist and union local chief. “I refused to work [the recovery program] because I was afraid it would happen.
United Federation of Teachers officials, who represent many occupational and physical therapists, said they were working with about 75 therapists who have yet to be paid at all and another 75 who have only been partially paid. The union has successfully resolved payment issues for another 150 therapists, officials said.
Surveys of therapists earlier this year suggested that hundreds of therapists were not being paid on time. Williams and UFT officials say there have been improvements since then.
Williams said there had been a series of bureaucratic problems in the payment process for therapists, which is handled by a separate system from that for teachers. She faulted the Education Department for not quickly training school payroll secretaries to correctly enter payment information, arguing that the agency ‘didn’t have a plan for how they were going to pay us’. . She also said the city wrongly denied waivers needed to pay therapists for overtime.
“What happened is unacceptable,” UFT spokesperson Alison Gendar wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “The union is focused on getting the money owed to them, speeding up the process for the remaining payments, and pressuring the DOE to improve the new payment system it ultimately created so that we don’t ‘let’s not have this problem in the future.”
Nicole Brownstein, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the city issued new guidelines for payroll secretaries in an effort to address payment issues.
“Therapists are essential to providing special education recovery services to our students with disabilities, and they deserve timely compensation for their important work,” Brownstein wrote in a statement. “We are making progress in clearing the backlog and will work hard until all vendors are paid in full.”
Since its inception, the program for the recovery of students with disabilities has faced setbacks. Its rollout has been delayed until December to many schools. The city did not guarantee yellow bus transportation, which made it difficult for many students to attend, and schools often did not communicate clearly with families about what services their children would receive during overtime. And while it’s open to all students with disabilities, only about 35% are expected to participate by the end of the year, city officials said.
Still, some parents and therapists said the extra sessions were helpful.
Jenny Clavin, an occupational therapist who has provided additional therapy at two schools in Queens, said she was happy to connect with students to provide them with more support, including movement activities and motor skills assistance. Some of his students had trouble connecting to remote sessions.
“Over the past two years, it’s been so stressful,” she said. The recovery program “was a good way to connect with them and give them more support.”
But getting compensation for his work has been a problem. Although she started working for the program in December, she said she didn’t get paid at all until March. Even then, there were ongoing errors in her pay, Clavin said, including money for days she didn’t work and lack of payment for days she did. She said the city deducted some of the incorrect payments from subsequent paychecks, but did not fully pay her for all the days she worked.
“I don’t know how I’m ever going to fix the errors that are in my payroll,” she said. “The uncertainty of not knowing what my salary will be until I get it because of mistakes is a major source of stress.”
Some advocates have said payment issues are concerning because any disincentives for therapists to enroll in initiatives such as the after-school and Saturday recovery program could result in students missing out on crucial services.
Maggie Moroff, special education policy expert at Advocates for Children, said occupational therapists and physical therapists provide support that is often a prerequisite for academic success, such as learning to grasp a pencil or helping students develop enough of stamina to navigate the school building and concentrate. during class without getting exhausted.
“If vendors aren’t paid, or if they aren’t paid promptly, they won’t stay on the job,” Moroff said. “And if they don’t stay at work, the kids won’t get the services and that’s a disaster.”
For her part, Gomes said she was torn by her decision to stop providing additional occupational therapy sessions as part of the recovery program. She offered therapy sessions at an elementary school in Harlem in addition to a specialized site in Staten Island for students with sensory challenges — and she acknowledged that it might be difficult for the elementary school to quickly find her a place. substitute.
“We are seeing progress with the students,” she said. “I really like the [recovery program]but I just can’t go through something like that again.
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering New York’s public schools. Contact Alex at [email protected]