For all its disruptions to schools overall, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t appeared to slow down the pace of teacher contract negotiations in New Jersey, with settlements actually quickening and growing slightly in the most recent talks.
The New Jersey School Boards Association said that new contract settlements have come in on average of about 3.14% salary increases for teachers so far, up slightly from 3.1% for new contracts last year.
The association is soon to release its next annual negotiations summary for the year, and it has found that contract talks are also getting settled at a faster pace than usual. It said about half of districts that expired in June have so far been settled.
One reason may be that more districts and their unions are opting for one-year contracts this year, instead of the typical three-year deals.
“With all the uncertainty this year, they figure they’ll do three years next time,” said Janet Bamford, a spokesperson for NJSBA.
“And what we’re seeing is they are moving more quickly,” she continued. “Districts have so many other challenges right now, and they just want to put this behind them.”
The communications director of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union in all but a handful of districts, said his members have not seen significant differences overall this year.
“There does not seem to be an issue of bargaining having stopped,” said Steve Baker. “Mostly, it seems to have adapted.”
In New Jersey, average teacher salary was over $72,000 for 2019, making it one of the highest in the country.
School board attorney Ari Schneider is head of the labor division for Busch Law Group, which represents about 50 districts. And he said he is surprised that settlement rates have continued to rise given the financially strained times.
“Settlements are high, to be honest,” he said, pointing to the shorter deals as one reason. “It seems they come at a premium. I would have expected lower settlements [with the pandemic].”
He did note an addition of COVID-related “sidebar” agreements as well, not part of the contract negotiation but agreed upon separately by the administration and unions. They have included everything from adjusted working conditions for remote and hybrid-instruction to how personal protective equipment is distributed.
One example was a district that adjusted the pay for coaches of fall sports in the case of seasons being cancelled. “For the most part, they are temporary and have a definite expiration dates,” Schneider said.
And he said the lack of face-to-face bargaining is, of course, unusual. “It’s been a weird dynamic — things are starting to get back to normalcy with actual in-person meetings,” Schneider said.
In a NJSBA podcast last month about negotiations during the pandemic, school board attorney Phil Stern described the different ground rules of remote negotiations, from how documents are distributed to how each side can break to caucus.
“And when negotiating remotely, you are sacrificing that very important social dynamic that plays a huge roll in collective bargaining, mainly body language, people’s responses, people’s reactions,” he said. “You can still see them remotely, but it’s obviously very different.”
But Schneider also said that stilted dynamic may be the reason for the quicker agreements: “Maybe it made it easier, as people didn’t want to keep having all these Zoom meetings.”