NYC Teachers, Take Note: If You Leave, You Lose

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The way New York City plans to distribute back pay to public school teachers includes an incentive to keep them in the system. According to the proposed labor contract, the teachers would receive payments over several years until 2020 but the bulk of the payout would come at the tail end.

At the same time, and in an apparent contradiction, the city’s calculations may count on teachers leaving the New York City schools before collecting what they are fully owed. Mayor Bill de Blasio's deal with the United Federation of Teachers included about $4 billion in retroactive pay and raises.

Lee Howard Adler, a lecturer at the School of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell University, said the contract proposal acknowledged a teacher retention problem in New York City and likely incorporated that very reality into its financial projections.

“No matter what Mr. de Blasio sought, there’s not an infinite amount of money," said Adler. "There’s enough money to be somewhat fair in resolving this. But this is the toughest one because of the back pay being so much.”

If the agreement is ratified by the union’s full membership, teachers will agree to receive the retroactive payments dating back to 2009, with 75 percent distributed between 2018 and 2020. Any teacher entitled to back pay who quits before 2020 will forfeit outstanding payments.

“The union believes that teacher retention is one of the keys to improving our schools, and we agreed with the city to structure the deal to encourage teachers to stay,” said Michael Mulgrew, the union president, in a statement.

Keith Miller, an English teacher at Juan Morel Campos Secondary School in Brooklyn, said the payout plan was not ideal but that he understood the subtext behind it.

"I don't think the pay scheme was meant as a hostage tactic, but it will definitely have members reconsidering leaving earlier," said Miller.

But other teachers questioned a plan that would lock them into a position to collect money that they have already earned.

"As far as I'm concerned, if this is going to be the case, then they have no right to call it retroactive pay," said a middle school English teacher in Manhattan, who declined to be named.

The union said that teachers who retire, rather than resign, from the system maintained a right to retroactive pay and would receive it according to the payout schedule until 2020. Teachers retiring at the end of this school year would receive back pay in one lump sum.