St. Johns County teachers union pushes for early retirement incentives for at-risk educators

St. Johns Education Association and St. Johns County School District representatives negotiate working conditions. (Screenshot via Facebook)

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – The teachers union and school district in St. Johns County are working to negotiate options for older teachers who might not feel safe returning to school next month.

The St. Johns Education Association (SJEA), which represents the nearly 2,700 teachers in the county, and the school district began negotiating Wednesday.

One of the options on the table is an early retirement incentive for teachers 62 years of age and older. This incentive would give educators age 62 and older medical coverage until age 65. They would also receive a one-time percentage of pay bonuses while other potential retirees would receive a one-time payment incentive, under the plan put forward by the union.

According to the CDC, people in their 60s or 70s are, in general, at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 50s or younger.

As you get older, your risk of being hospitalized for COVID-19 increases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

“We thought it would be an incentive for those who are eligible to go ahead and take early retirement because this year is going to be so unpredictable,” said Michelle Dillon, SJEA president. “We do believe that the virus will infiltrate schools, unfortunately, at some point.”

Both the district and SJEA proposed a provision that would allow immunocompromised teachers, and teachers living with others who are immunocompromised, to also take a leave of absence if they want to. SJCSD proposed that individuals age 65 and over be granted a leave of absence if they want while the union wants the measure to be offered to those 60 years or older. The union also proposed that employees not be mandated to use their sick leave before they take a leave of absence.

The goals of the proposals, according to SJEA lead negotiator Justin Vogel, are to give teachers options outside of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a federal law that requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. The act can allow for two weeks of paid sick leave for an employee who is unable to work because they quarantined and/or are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and are getting tested.

“If I can’t come to work but I’m not sick, I should be able to work remotely, temporarily,” said Vogel, who’s also a teacher. “So, that is in our proposal, it was not in theirs. But I don’t think that that’s unreasonable, either.”

Vogel said nearly 2,000 union members responded to a recent survey and 23% said they are high-risk and 33% said they live with someone who is. The district’s proposal did include leave for those that are immunocompromised and those that are living with others that are immunocompromised. The district also proposed that individuals must provide a physician’s clearance and receive permission from the district office to qualify for “pandemic leave”.

As for early retirement, about five percent of instructional personnel said they would consider it.

“That might seem like a small number but that’s actually over 100 people,” Vogel said.

One proposal that the union is confident will get through is one that would make sure teachers get paid in the middle of August, despite the district’s decision to push back the school start date to Aug. 31. The district also agreed to add two more planning days to give teachers more time to prepare for what will certainly be a unique and challenging school year.

The district also proposed a transfer exception that would allow individuals to apply for transfer to St. Johns Virtual School if they meet the requirement for pandemic leave.

The two sides have yet to come to an agreement on any of the issues proposed, but the negotiating teams will meet again on Monday to discuss the options further.

“Although we didn’t tentatively agree to anything, I look forward to Monday continuing the negotiations,” Dillon said. “But it really does feel like we share a lot of the same goals in working to ensure the safety and well being of our educators.”

The St. Johns County School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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