An archaic and outdated federal regulation is excluding teachers from critical wage and hour protections, resulting in more than one million classroom teachers being significantly underpaid.
By: Edward Graham
Teachers deserve the same salary protections as other professionals.
However, teachers are excluded from wage and hour protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which has driven down starting salaries for educators.
NEA is calling on the U.S. Department of Labor to rescind this exclusion regulation and give teachers the same protections as similarly-educated professionals.
The blue glow from sixth-grade English teacher Brooke Davis' laptop has become her 2-year-old son's night-light. Every night, as she coaxes Cooper to sleep with one hand, she’s also inputting her students’ grades and finishing up other administrative tasks she just couldn’t get to earlier in the day.
“I had hoped to accomplish some grading during my planning period,” she says, “but instead I’ve spent that time covering other classes due to lack of substitutes, meeting with parents of kids with disabilities, drafting special education plans, returning parent phone calls, meeting with colleagues, and doing all the other duties that come with the job. Because there is no overtime for teachers, all this work goes unpaid. It’s another 12 hours of work for just eight hours of pay."
Davis isn’t the only one.
Because of an archaic and outdated federal regulation that excludes teachers from critical wage and hour protections, over a million classroom teachers are significantly underpaid. And the lack of competitive pay is forcing more teachers out of the profession, compounding a national teacher shortage crisis that has been made worse by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
To help stem the exodus of educators from the classroom and ensure that teachers are receiving the pay that they deserve, NEA is leading the charge for a solution by calling in a new white paper for federal officials to rescind an outdated regulation that excludes pre-K-12 teachers and professors from receiving the same wage and hour protections as other professionals.
THE “TEACHER EXCLUSION” REGULATION
First adopted in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the federal law that establishes national minimum wage and hour standards, including overtime pay or compensatory time for employees who work more than forty hours a week. Under the law, employees are only “exempt” from the wage and overtime protections if, among other things, they are paid a salary and earn above a certain salary threshold. While the law provides critical protections for many employees across the United States, the FLSA regulations enacted in 1967 to implement FLSA’s expansion to schools excluded teachers from those protections. Instead, teachers were placed in the same unprotected category as doctors and lawyers who work in professions that pay double or even triple what the teaching profession does.
By keeping teachers from qualifying for FLSA’s protections, regardless of their salary levels or whether they receive hourly wages, the “teacher exclusion” regulation drives down starting salaries for educators. This in turn drives down the recruitment and retention of teachers, exacerbating the nation’s teacher shortage crisis.
The existing teacher pay penalty—the difference between what public school teachers make when compared to similar college-educated workers—has drastically increased over the past three decades, underscoring the need for regulatory action. Despite being excluded from the FLSA’s protections along with high earning doctors and lawyers, teachers make just 80.8 cents on the dollar compared to similarly educated professionals. The average median salary for K-12 teachers in the 2019-2020 school year was $63,645; comparatively, the median salary for doctors was $208,000 in 2020 while the median pay for lawyers in 2020 was $126,930.
Nick Fuller, a first grade teacher in Iron River, Michigan, said the teacher pay penalty, coupled with his student debt from college, has severely limited his take-home salary.
“The first year I lived with my parents and saved money by not spending anything—no happy hours, no new clothes, no Saturday night movies, nothing,” said Fuller, who made $33,000 as a first-year teacher and would personally benefit from a rollback of the FLSA’s teacher exclusion regulation. “If I hadn’t still lived at home, I could not have afforded to teach. The math just doesn’t add up.”
As NEA argued in the white paper, the regulatory treatment of teachers has been a major factor in creating the teacher pay penalty, which in turn fuels the nationwide teacher shortage. When other careers are often more financially lucrative, and when existing regulations treat teachers the same as those making double or even triple their salaries, it should come as no surprise that low pay is one important factor driving educators away from the profession—particularly since teachers’ salaries, when adjusted for inflation, have actually declined by almost four percent over the past decade.
Before COVID-19, approximately 8 percent of the teacher workforce left public education each year. But a nationwide survey conducted by the NEA in January 2022 found that more than half of educators (55 percent) are likely to leave the profession or retire sooner than they planned because of the pandemic. That number has almost doubled since July 2020, when NEA found in a similar survey that 28 percent of educators were ready to leave or retire from the profession earlier than they anticipated.
Since teachers are already being forced to teach more students and shoulder more responsibilities because of the current shortage, the growing number of those contemplating leaving the profession only spells further trouble for public education.
TREATING TEACHERS WITH THE RESPECT THEY DESERVE
Eliminating the FLSA’s teacher exclusion regulation and giving teachers the same protections as similarly-educated professionals would help address the teacher shortage by raising the starting salaries for new teachers and making others eligible for overtime pay or compensatory time.
A 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that calculated the direct impact of the teacher exclusion policy on the nation’s lowest paid teachers found that more than 1.5 million public and private teachers across the nation—approximately 23.8 percent of those in the profession—would be affected if teachers were no longer excluded from the FLSA’s protections.
The 1.5 million teachers identified in EPI’s report are hourly or salaried employees who earn less than the FLSA’s current salary threshold of $684 per week. And while most public school teachers in the U.S. are salaried employees, approximately 10 percent are paid on an hourly basis.
Because teachers are excluded from the FLSA’s wage and hour protections—no matter how little they make or whether they are paid hourly—teachers across the country continue to make too little to live in the areas in which they work and to support themselves and their families without taking on second jobs. And the inadequate pay often impacts teachers’ personal lives, affecting their relationships with their families and forcing them to reconsider their career paths.
Lakeisha Patterson, a reading, writing, and social studies teacher in Pasadena, Texas, works 70 hour weeks teaching and preparing lessons for her classroom. Patterson said that, in addition to the low pay, the long hours sometimes make her feel guilty about not spending more time with her two young daughters.
“I usually grade papers at the kitchen table, and I fear that I’m neglecting my own kids who need my attention,” Patterson said. “That’s a struggle that so many educators are going through right now. We all go above and beyond, but there’s a lack of empathy, a lack of pay, and a lack of support. I don’t think people realize the mass exodus from the teaching profession that’s on the way.”
Rescinding the FLSA’s teacher exclusion regulation, as NEA argued in the white paper, would validate the hard work of teachers like Patterson by giving them the compensation and respect that they deserve. And increasing the pay of classroom teachers has been shown to have a positive impact on the academic success of students. As one study found, increasing teacher pay by just 10 percent lowers student dropout rates by 3-4 percent. By making sure that teachers are paid appropriately, we can help ensure the success of our future generations.
A LONG OVERDUE STEP
Whatever the initial rationale may have been for lumping teachers together with highly compensated lawyers and doctors as excluded from FLSA’s protections, it’s long past time for officials to change this policy. That’s why NEA is committed to making this regulatory change a reality by pushing for the Department of Labor to rescind the FLSA’s outdated teacher exclusion regulation and give teachers access to the same salary protections as similar professionals.
Earlier this week, NEA delivered its white paper to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, along with a letter signed by a coalition of more than 30 labor unions and organizations supporting efforts to rescind the antiquated teacher exclusion regulation.
For too long, overworked and underpaid teachers have stoically tried to balance their professional commitments and their personal lives without receiving the compensation that they deserve. As NEA President Becky Pringle said, ending the FLSA’s teacher exclusion regulation will increase teachers’ pay and “ensure students in every corner of the nation have a qualified teacher in the classroom to guide and mentor them as they realize and achieve their full potential.”