School Safety Agents Claim Pay Discrimination

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The city's 5,000 school safety agents have signed on to a class action lawsuit accusing the city of paying them less than the special officers who perform similar work at homeless shelters and hospitals. The suit claims the city is violating the federal Equal Pay Act because school safety agents are overwhelmingly female.

Three women with long careers as school safety agents filed the lawsuit in 2010, which was later expanded to a class action. Papers filed with the court say approximately 70 percent of school safety agents are female. Yet they make about 20 percent less than special officers, who are mostly male and who provide similar duties. The top salary for a special officer is about $42,000 a year compared to about $35,000 for a safety agent.

School safety agents are responsible for patrolling buildings, intervening in altercations between students and making sure every visitor is authorized. They've confiscated knives and witnessed vicious gang activity according to the Daily News, which quoted from the depositions of several safety agents.

The plaintiffs' attorney, James Linsey, said expert witnesses backed up the safety agents' complaints that they're doing the same work as special officers.

"They're basically doing the same job, they carry the same equipment," he said. "Both categories are peace officers under the law of the state of New York. Which means they can carry handcuffs, they can and do make arrests, they can - under reasonable circumstances - use deadly force, if necessary, in their job. So basically these folks do the same thing."

Safety agents are hired and trained by the police department, which has been responsible for school safety since 1998. Special officers work for the Health and Hospital Corporation, as well as six mayoral agencies including the Department of Homeless Services, the Human Resources Administration, and the Administration of Children's Services.

The city's law department confirmed that it's in the process of evaluating the case.

Department of Education officials said they couldn't comment on details due to the litigation but noted that since 2002 major crime in the schools was down by 49 percent and violent crime declined by 45 percent.

Linsey said the discovery phase is almost over, meaning the case could move to a jury trial by the fall. But he said he expects the city will file a motion to dismiss.