Outside, the March temperatures were in the teens, the wind was biting and a light snow swirled beneath a crescent moon.
But inside a packed ballroom in the Saratoga Hilton Friday night, Auburn teacher Joe DeCarlo received a warm and hearty burst of applause for receiving NYSUT’s Unsung Hero award at the biennial Health and Safety Conference.
DeCarlo, a member of the Auburn Teachers Association, came to his first Health and Safety Conference in 2015, when the last one was held. He was so fired up about what he learned that he went back to his school district ready to roll up his sleeves. DeCarlo realized that his district did not have a health and safety committee, even though it is required by law.
He started an ATA health and safety committee, which he now chairs, and then a district-wide committee involving staff, members of other unions, administrators, and teachers. He is co-chair of that committee.
“The district is now addressing long-standing issues,” he said, including rodents, ventilation problems and temperature extremes. He was also able to prove that by OSHA standards, faculty required a certain number of toilets, separate from students, and those were provided.
Holding up his new plaque, a smiling DeCarlo said that “The training and learning is the real award.”
In his new role on the health and safety committee, he put together a survey of union members to see what teachers concerns were. Their #1 concern is air quality and temperature, he said.
He installed uniform thermometers in classrooms with specific issues; they register humidity and temperature levels. In one building, one classroom was 56 degrees while another was 86 degrees. In one wing of a school, where four kindergarten classes are located, the temperature was 88 degrees.
“Our littlest ones were experiencing high extremes,” he said.
He urged union members to collect data for NYSUT, which is tracking temperature disparities to advocate for a law that would limit upper temperature extremes. Participants are asked to collect temperatures in September and again in May and June for a two-week period. Information can be found at www.nysut.org/healthandsafety. For further information, contact Wendy Hord, NYSUT health and safety specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The second biggest concern is his district, mirrored in some other schools as well, is failure to fill positions when someone is sick.
“It’s chronic,” said DeCarlo, who is an executive officer of the ATA.
When teachers are out and a substitute is not hired, general education teachers are pulled out of their classes to school special education students, and vice versa.
“So, we’re absent when we’re not,” said DeCarlo, a special education teacher.
When maintenance staff is absent and no one is there to fill in for their duties, cleanliness of the school is impacted. Social workers, school psychologists, occupational, physical and speech therapists are automatically not replaced when they are unavailable due to sickness or professional development, he said.
“This is a huge disruption in service,” DeCarlo said. He hopes to organize a think tank to find solutions to this problem.
Pumped up by his new role as health and safety advocate for his peers back in Auburn, DeCarlo told the crowd that “communication and connection are the source of our strength…Our real strength is unity. It’s not enough to tell it like it is. You must work to make it like it should be.”
The Unsung Hero award was created by NYSUT in 2009 to honor union members who identify problems in the workplace, institute green initiatives, and manifest healthy environments at work.
“If we don’t care about health and safety, lives get lost,” said Paul Pecorale, NYSUT vice president who oversees the health and safety constituency. Labor unions are the organizations that made health and safety a foundation for workers, he said, urging local unions to create a health and safety contact in every building.
“We are still here and we still matter,” Pecorale said.
Sessions at the two-day conference include best practices in delivering mental and behavioral health services; advocating for injured workers; workplace bullying and harassment; cyberbullying; indoor air quality; grading your workplace violence plan; and student trauma and its impact on the school environment.
Darryl Alexander, director of the American Federation of Teachers health and safety department, told the participants in a keynote address that in a 2015 AFT Quality of Life survey developed by teachers and paraprofessionals, 35,000 educators responded within one week. She said 73 percent of responders said they were stressed every day on the job; 30 percent reported being bullied routinely; and 23 percent suffered from three or more stress-related illnesses.
Common ailments of educators include asthma, sinusitis and chronic bronchitis, caused by “really bad schools and working conditions,” she said. Poor indoor air quality is often the culprit. Unions are making these illnesses known.
“We’ve also made it visible that teachers have a prevalence of voice disorders, bladder issues, and asthma. We’ve made it clear these conditions are not just part of the job,” she said.
Alexander will be retiring in several months, and the group gave her rousing applause and presented her with a gift for her dedication and passion for health and safety, as well as her consistent commitment to NYSUT members as a speaker, national liaison, and advocate.