PROVIDENCE, RI — Educators at the Groden Center schools in Providence and Coventry announce plans to strike for three days beginning on Tuesday to demand safer classrooms for their students and living wages for staff, and in protest of management’s Unfair Labor Practices, if no tentative agreement is reached prior to the strike deadline.
“We love our students and don’t want to be on strike again,” said Samantha Lozeau, a Behavior Specialist at Groden South School in Coventry. “But we have tried so hard to get management to take our concerns seriously, and they continue to spend money on temp agency staff so our students aren’t getting the education or services they deserve. Most of our students cannot stand up and speak for themselves so we are going to be their voice and fight for better schools for all educators and students.”
Since a one-day strike on August 17, Groden staff have met with management several times in an attempt to reach an agreement, including as recently as Friday, September 28. The union’s primary goal in negotiations is to reduce turnover and ensure a safe learning environment for students, as over 90% of behavioral specialists earn less than $15/hour and Groden has a yearly turnover rate of almost 30%. Groden management has not responded to the union’s most recent proposal.
The Groden Center is a non-profit that serves students with Autism from around the region. Students who struggle in traditional public schools attend school at Groden in order can receive specialized education more suited to their educational needs. School districts around the state pay for these services, and trust that the students will be taught by professionals who are familiar with the students and have training and expertise in educating students with autism.
Instead, temporary agency staff with less training and familiarity with students are often used to cover vacant positions. These staff are less familiar with the needs of students and often struggle to implement the students Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Groden spent nearly $350,000 on temporary agency staffing in a recent 12-month period rather than investing in raises to recruit and retain staff.
“Things have never been this bad,” said Bob Arruda, a Behavior Specialist who’s worked at Groden for 20 years. Every day now our students are put in the care of a rotating cast of temporary agency staff, who don’t know their needs and don’t have the training to help them learn to their full potential.”
For children with Autism, consistency is a cornerstone of their education and well-being. The constant turnover and use of temporary staff not only deprives students of a quality education, it has resulted in daily occurrences of injuries and unsafe situations for students and staff.
The problem, educators say, is low-wages and upside down management priorities. While Behavior Specialists start at just $11.70/hr ($21,294 per year), managers make six-figure salaries and the company’s founders were given million-dollar retirement packages. While vans used to transport students are falling apart and lack basic safety features, management bought luxury cars for top executives. In 2016, Groden hired disgraced former DCYF-head Janice DeFrances to be their CEO and paid her $152,218.
“We’re striking to show that the current situation with high turnover and all these temporary staff is unacceptable,” said Kersten Brothers, a Behavior Specialist in Providence. “All students, and especially students with autism, need consistency. We will never be able to recruit and retain the staff our students need if management continues to pay poverty wages.”
The strike follows waves of labor action at other schools around the country this year, with teachers’ strikes in multiple states resulting in increases to education funding, better classroom-ratios, and higher wages for educators.
“We want to get back to the classroom, we want to get back to normal for us and our students,” said Lozeau. “But we won’t stop fighting until Groden is a better place for educators and students.”