During a Republican presidential debate on Dec. 10, 2011, in Iowa, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., made a striking claim about how overpaid New York City school janitors are (or, perhaps, how underpaid teachers are). The remark came in the context of Gingrich’s suggestion that poor students should be given the opportunity to fill duties currently handled by school janitors, calling it a way to instill a work eithic while also saving money.
"As to schools, I think every person up here worked at a young age," Gingrich said. "What I suggested was kids ought to be able to work part time in school, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods, both because they could use the money. If you take one half of the New York janitors who unionized and paid more than the teachers -- an entry level janitor gets paid twice as much as an entry level teacher. You take half those janitors you could give -- you give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office and a lot of different things."
We received a flurry of requests from readers that we fact-check the claim that in New York City, "an entry level janitor gets paid twice as much as an entry level teacher."
"Teachers in at least one Bronx school earn less money than the building custodian, a stat that has surprised students and parents.
"Although it is commonly assumed teachers' wages top the salaries of custodians, an NBC New York analysis of public payrolls shows many custodians make more money than even the highest paid city teachers.
"According to the union contract governing New York City Custodian Engineers, the men and women responsible for keeping school buildings clean and operating can make up to $114,000 a year in base pay. The highest paid teacher, with a masters degree and decades of tenure, can hope to make just over $100,000 in base pay. …
"The pay-scale differences are even more pronounced for rookie teachers and custodians. First-year New York City school teachers without graduate degrees, make about $45,000 a year. The minimum pay for a first-year custodial engineer is almost $80,000 a year."
The NBC story was correct about the starting salary for teachers in the New York City Department of Education, at least those with only a bachelor’s degree and no prior teaching experience. Such teachers start at $45,530. Teachers who have a master’s degree but no teaching experience start at $51,425.
But what about the people Gingrich called "janitors"? This is where he runs into trouble.
The NBC piece referred to a "first-year custodial engineer." That’s a much more senior position, requiring specific skills and experience. Here’s how the official exam describes "what the job involves" at "assignment level 1," the lower of two levels:
"Under general supervision (custodial engineers) supervise and are responsible for the physical operation, maintenance, repair, custodial upkeep and care of a public school building and its immediate grounds; supervise, plan and are responsible for the work of the custodial and maintenance staff; heat building by means of low pressure boilers; maintain HVAC equipment; make minor repairs to steam plant, heating equipment, electrical equipment, plumbing, structure, glazing and furniture; supervise cleaning of the building and grounds; maintain the building and grounds in a safe, secure and sanitary condition; conduct inspections of building to determine needed repairs; consult with and advise officials on problems of operation, maintenance and repairs; set up custodial work schedules to ensure maximum efficiency and minimum interference with classroom activities; requisition and account for custodial and maintenance materials, tools and supplies; maintain records and prepare required reports of plant operations; within assigned budget, hire appropriate personnel and train or arrange for their training, prepare payrolls and personnel forms, pay wages and provide Worker’s Compensation Insurance for hired personnel; are responsible for interior maintenance painting of school building; perform related work."
Somehow, we don’t think a middle-schooler or high-schooler is qualified to "make minor repairs to steam plant, heating equipment, electrical equipment, plumbing, structure," or "requisition and account for custodial and maintenance materials, tools and supplies," or "hire appropriate personnel and train or arrange for their training, prepare payrolls and personnel forms, pay wages and provide Worker’s Compensation Insurance."
Custodial engineers are actually supervisory positions. In fact, you can’t even apply for this job unless you have a "four-year high school diploma or its educational equivalent and one year of full-time paid satisfactory experience in operating boilers."
For all these responsibilities, what do you get paid? In 2004, when the exam announcement we found was released, the rate was $41,500. Today, it’s $55,625, according to Robert J. Troeller, president and business manager of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The latter amount is higher than teachers with either a bachelor’s degree or a master’s agree -- but it’s not double, as Gingrich said. And more importantly, we don’t think a starting custodial engineer would be what Gingrich calls an "entry level janitor."
We asked Troeller for the beginning wages for lower-level custodial positions in schools according to collective bargaining agreements. In descending order of skills required, they are:
Engineer (responsible for boilers that require special training): $23.38 per hour, equivalent to $48,630 for a full year.
Fireman (runs the boilers): $20.68 per hour, or $43,014 for a full year.
Handyman: $17.68 per hour, or $36,774 for a full year.
Cleaner: $15.77 per hour, or $32,801 for a full year. (First- and second-year employees are paid below the standard rate; in year three, it goes up to the standard rate of $18.13 an hour.)
We agree with Troeller that "cleaner" best fits the description of "entry level janitor" as used by Gingrich. And for that, even the least credentialed starting teacher earns about 1.4 times as much as a starting cleaner, and a starting teacher with a graduate degree earns 1.6 times as much. (We’re assuming here that new cleaners work a 40-hour week and a 52-week year, which is not necessarily the case, Troeller said.)
Gingrich could have argued that the contracts for unionized New York City custodial engineers max out at a higher level than that for teachers; that much is true. Instead, he twisted the statistic beyond recognition.
Starting custodial engineers do earn more than starting teachers, but not "twice" the amount. Meanwhile, a custodial engineer is a credentialed supervisory position, not an "entry level janitor." When you compare apples to apples -- an entry-level unionized "cleaner" to an entry-level unionized teacher -- the teacher earns 1.4 to 1.6 times more. We rate the statement False.