Why We Need to End the FLSA Teacher Exclusion

As we celebrate 85 years of fair labor standards, it’s time to act on correcting the antiquated ‘professional exemption’ that shortchanges teachers and students.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established minimum wages and overtime pay, among other laws, to protect workers. However, teachers were carved out of the FLSA by way of an antiquated regulation that makes them exempt from overtime pay even if they work extra hours, regardless of how little they make. The only other professionals that fall under this regulation are doctors and lawyers, whose salaries are astronomically higher than the teacher’s average pay. While the lack of pay is currently the most significant concern for teachers across the country, there is also a battle for basic respect for the profession and empathy for the countless hours worked as a teacher.

When I entered the teaching profession a few years ago, I commonly heard that FLSA didn’t apply to teachers, no matter how many extra unpaid hours we put into ensuring our students got what they needed to succeed. The false narrative that teachers only work 8 to 3 or get summers off has also contributed to the systematic lack of respect for the teaching profession, further influencing how our society values educators and their roles as highly trained professionals. A recent report from the RAND Corporation found that 25% of the hours teachers work go without compensation. During the 2022–2023 school year, teachers worked more hours per week, on average, than other working adults — 53 hours compared with 46.

Teachers are already some of the lowest-paid professionals, but we also pay a penalty when entering this profession.

Teachers are already some of the lowest-paid professionals, but we also pay a penalty when entering this profession. According to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, teachers made 26.4% less than other similarly educated professionals in 2022—the most significant gap since 1960. This wage gap has more than quadrupled since 1996. This means that, on average, teachers earned 73.6 cents for every dollar other professionals made in 2022. Low pay and the gap between teacher pay and that of other similarly educated professionals are further contributing to the educator shortage gripping schools across the country. And teachers of color make the least on average; according to a 2021 EPI analysis, 28% of teachers of color make less than the current salary threshold of $35,568 a year. The resulting and escalating crisis impacts student learning and teachers’ professional status and economic security, almost three-quarters of whom are women.

I was drawn to special education because my brother has significant needs, and growing up, I wanted to be a positive change for kids like him. Five years after graduating from Iron Mountain Public Schools in Michigan, I returned to my district as an elementary special education teacher. The first year, I made $30K. It’s not sustainable. My friends leave teaching because they cannot live on this salary. The only reason I can stay in education is that I am married, and we have a two-income household. But with a toddler and student loans piling up, I also don’t know how long I can continue following my passion. We are losing excellent teachers because they can’t afford to stay in the profession. Updating the FLSA’s regulatory treatment of teachers would be a step in the right direction of helping to ensure we can be fairly compensated for the hours we work outside the classroom and raise the pay floor for those who barely make above minimum wage.

The first year, I made $30K. It’s not sustainable. My friends leave teaching because they cannot live on this salary.

Low pay is not just driving away current teachers but also discouraging future educators from entering the profession. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has decreased drastically in the last decade, even as overall college enrollment has increased. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on: When you cannot make enough money in your profession to pay the student loans you had to take out to complete college and go through certification to be a teacher, then you aren’t likely to enter the teaching profession in the first place.

We are celebrating 85 years since FLSA was signed into law. Modifying the FLSA regulations so the law extends to teachers the same salary basis and threshold test that applies to other professionals is long overdue, much needed, and would make a difference that pays dividends down the road. Making that change will benefit not just teachers but schools and students, as it will address the long-standing and growing wage gap that drives would-be educators away and current teachers out of the teaching profession. The time to act is long overdue.

Audra DeRidder is a special education and fifth-grade math and science teacher in Iron Mountain, Michigan.

Read essays from workers and advocates whose direct experience with the FLSA’s shortcomings offers a starting point for discussion and action to change it:

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