In her 18 years as a school safety agent, 47-year-old Juana Gonzalez says she’s seen it all. She’s confiscated weapons, broken up gang fights and provided countless bits of advice to students who seek her counsel.
“It’s a very demanding job,” she said. “I feel that we’ve been underpaid for many years for the type of work we do.”
Gonzalez is one of the more than 5,000 school safety agents who have signed on to a class action lawsuit accusing the city of pay discrimination and violating the Equal Pay Act.
Approximately 70 percent of school agents are female, most of them black and Latino. The lawsuit, initially filed by three women in 2010, said special officers, who are mostly male, perform similar duties yet make 20 percent more than school safety agents. The top salary for a special officer is about $42,000 a year compared to about $35,000 for a safety agent.
Special officers work in hospitals, as well as six mayoral agencies including the Department of Homeless Services and the Administration of Children’s Services. Both safety officers and special officers fall under the same category of city peace officers; they are employed by the New York Police Department.
“Who can say that the responsibility for the safety and security for children at school is any less than patients in a hospital or homeless people in a homeless shelter?” said James Linsey, the plaintiff’s attorney.
“They’re empowered to arrest people, they carry handcuffs and they can use deadly force should that become necessary,” he said. “The skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions of the two groups are substantially identical.”Gonzalez, who works six days a week, is a top-level agent. She patrols a cluster of schools in the Bronx, including M.S. 45. Along with administrative duties, she’s responsible for monitoring hallways, responding to calls of violent behavior and making sure visitors are authorized.
“They [people] see us sitting at a desk and think that’s our daily job,” she said. “But we have incidents that we respond to all the time – at least one fight a week.”
After almost two decades on the job, she’s cracked student robberies, worked to stop student prostitution and confiscated several weapons. Gonzalez said her body has taken a beating, and she still suffers from a back injury after being pushed into a parked car. More recently, she was punched in the face while restraining a student over a cell phone incident.
“Those are the aches and bruises that we got on the job,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but I say it’s part of the job.”
Another part is not written in the job description. “We’re counselors, we’re friends, we’re mothers, we’re sisters,” she said.
She said many students confided in her — from relationships to grades — and it’s these interactions she would miss most if she left the job.
“At this point, after 18 years, I have to really consider that I need more money,” she said. “I would love to put my son in Catholic school and I can’t do that.”
Last year, safety agents made a total of 882 arrests and issued more than 1,500 summons. Gregory Floyd, president of the union, Teamsters Local 237, that represents the agents, said their responsibilities expanded in 1998 after then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani transferred school safety from the former Board of Education to the police department.
“They do more arrests, they do summons, juvenile delinquent tickets,” he explained. “So their productivity is up. Their workload is up. But their salaries are not the same as their male counterparts.”
A spokesperson for the law department confirmed that city lawyers are evaluating the case and declined to comment on pending litigation.
The discovery phase of the case is almost over, which means the case could move to a jury trial by the fall. The retroactive settlement the parties seek is about $35 million.