Teaching with strep throat and working in fear: Kaplan course’s ugly underside

"We were just ... terrified of coming to work," Kaplan ESL teacher says. "People had nightmares"

Topics: Kaplan, Union, Labor, Newspaper Guild, CWA, teaching, Education, Editor's Picks, ESL, ,

Teaching with strep throat and working in fear: Kaplan course's ugly underside Paul Hlava

Twenty-one months ago, ESL teachers at three schools run by Kaplan – the for-profit education division of what was then called the Washington Post Co. – scored a rare union victory, winning a government-supervised election to become Kaplan’s first unionized employees. Last month, Kaplan teachers gathered with a brass band outside one of three now-unionized New York schools, protesting the fact that they still don’t have a union contract.

“Their strategy is just to make the work environment really terrible,” Kaplan teacher and Newspaper Guild union activist Paul Hlava charged in an interview late last week. “So that all of us who were around when the union started leave.” Hlava alleged he and his co-workers had faced illegal wage theft and aggressive union-busting in the months before they formed a union (“really, really terrifying”), and punitive policy changes ever since. “Even after Kaplan teachers voted overwhelmingly to join our union,” Newspaper Guild of New York union president Bill O’Meara charged in an email, ”Kaplan management is still refusing to negotiate a reasonable contract for their teachers.”

Asked about the allegations, Kaplan said in an emailed statement that “Negotiating a first labor contract takes time,” and that it “has modified its proposals in response to the union’s concerns and will continue to negotiate in good faith to reach a reasonable and responsible contract with the union through the collective bargaining process.” The company added, “Any agreement reached with the union must enable Kaplan to continue to meet the needs of its students and succeed in the highly competitive ESL business.”

A condensed version of Salon’s interview with Hlava follows.

Why did you form a union at Kaplan?

We had kind of seen the slow degradation of whatever little we had …

Some of the people who I was working with, they got hired at $24 [per teaching hour] … When I was starting, the hiring rate was $20 an hour — and then now it’s gone down to as low as $17 …

After working very hard for the company, and doing what we considered a lot of favors for the company — like doing extra hours, substituting classes or taking twice as many students as we were supposed to … they just then, like, randomly fire people …

One of the things that Kaplan had done was basically illegally not paid us …



Managers were asking people to move hours so they could avoid paying overtime.

“Move hours” how so?

Some teachers who worked there years ago … sued the company, took them to court [successfully] …

If we cover lots of classes in a week, then, you know, we’ll go into overtime … At some point a manager would come up to us and say, “Would you do me a favor, and would it be possible to, instead of [recording] the seven hours here, put [down] a couple extra hours in the following week” … I don’t remember exactly the wording, but “it avoids tricky pay problems,” or something similar to that …

So then were they telling you to record hours inaccurately?

Yeah. Exactly … we were just moving them from one paycheck from one week, to a different week, so that there wouldn’t be any overtime.

The decision to try to form a union – was that a difficult decision for you?

Yeah, it was really difficult … Because there are three [Kaplan] schools in New York, we decided to do it as a kind of a trifecta of schools, anticipating that if one school unionized and the other two didn’t, Kaplan might just close down that school …

At first, you know, we were very excited … to maybe do something that could potentially benefit a lot of people. Not just ourselves, but all of the people who were going to be hired in the future …

However, as soon as Kaplan got word of it, things got pretty ugly … Every single day, you would go to work, and somebody would call you into their office, and … have a little five-, 10-minute chat with you specifically about the union …

We also had some kind of group meetings … although, they stopped those pretty early because we teachers started kind of ganging up on them …

But the one-on-one meetings were really, really terrifying. I mean, we go into work and we’re being graded – our ability to continue working at the school has always been based on these student survey scores. So we have to … teach them and also make class interesting and exciting for them. So we’re trying to prepare all these different things.

And then, 15 minutes before class starts, we get called into our boss’s office, and are given a lecture about the union … The tone of the meeting might sway anywhere from extremely warm and friendly, like, “We’re all a family here … why would you want to bring some outside party — you can just talk to us” … [to] as wild as “everyone could lose their jobs” …

We were just like terrified of coming to work. People had nightmares about it and everything.

Did that make you consider backing down from the effort?

I think it had the opposite effect. Because there were quite a few teachers who were on the fence … they didn’t want to rock the boat … As soon as we started getting a lot of these threats … It made the teachers really pissed off …

Every single day we would get some fliers … One of the big jokes among us was [a flier stating, “DID YOU KNOW IT COULD COST YOU UP TO $600 PER YEAR JUST TO KEEP YOUR JOB”] … As if we were incapable of doing math …

[That’s] way more than any of us would ever make. Union dues would be more like $200 for most of us, if [as the flier stated] it was 1.3 percent [of income] …

Was there retaliation against people who were leaders in the campaign?

At our school I don’t think they knew who the leaders were …

We definitely had the feeling that we were being constantly watched. Managers all of the sudden — that would never really stop by classes — were stopping by our classes every day. Or just walking by and poking their heads in …

Only after we voted and we actually became a union did there start to be some retaliation. However … we still don’t know if that’s because people were part of the union, or just because [as more senior workers] they were getting paid more …

What kind of retaliation?

Our ability to stay there — this is kind of told to you from the moment you’re hired – is basically just based on these students’ survey scores … [After unionization] they started using these survey scores against us …our yearly reviews, everybody’s just dropped drastically … [even though] comments in our yearly reviews would be almost exactly the same …

If our scores dropped .01 percent, or something completely unnoticeable, they would call us into their offices – in fact I shouldn’t say “would” – they still do — and tell us that they’re worried about our scores, and they noticed that our scores have been going down, and maybe we should do an observation … A few of the teachers have gotten called in … about how their scores weren’t doing well, and they weren’t even allowed to see them …

Around the same time we unionized, they started telling us that “the computers changed,” and when teachers would take [unpaid] vacations, they would say, “We don’t know if you’ll be able to come back, because the computer’s dropped you.”

Since you won the union election, has Kaplan been trying to get rid of the union, or get the workers to get rid of the union?

I would certainly say yes, and I feel like all of my co-workers would say yes …

They just have been hiring a lot of workers, and then calling these workers “temporary workers,” which is kind of a new development … We’re constantly getting teachers come, just get a footing, start to really, like, build their syllabus and classes — and then get fired, and new teachers come in …

Constantly having this new influx makes it really difficult for us to talk to any of the new teachers, and to get anybody to join — or even to really get to know anybody.

And of course it makes it really terrible for the students as well …

It really sucks. Like, I grow very close to my students … Some of the students have had five teachers over the course of two weeks.

A spokesperson for Kaplan in October told CNN that it’s normal for negotiations to take a long time. Do you accept that as an explanation?

Well, of course they would say that. They want negotiations to take a long time, because their strategy is just to make the work environment really terrible, so that all of us who were around when the union started leave …

It’s in their advantage to drag their feet, and that’s certainly what they’ve been doing.

What are the changes that you are hoping to see made in your job through these negotiations?

So many people who I grew very close with … got fired for reasons that we just don’t know. So just making Kaplan own up for the reasons they fire people is probably one of the most important things for me …

Paid holidays … Students pay for some holidays … and teachers don’t get anything — the money, of course, just goes straight into the pockets of the CEO … [A year ago] all of us at our school were asked to make student report cards. They were due on the 25th of December. So even though we’re forced to have unpaid vacations, we’re also forced to work on those days …

Sick days … All of us who work at Kaplan, who have worked there for a year, have gone to work sick. So when you’re going to class with 15, 16 students, and you have a fever — I don’t know, it just doesn’t really seem like the nicest thing to be doing to those students either …

Kaplan keeps repeating … “legally we can’t change anything when we’re in contract negotiations” …  After we formed a union, all of the other schools had anti-union meetings, and in those meetings they announced that they were giving the teachers raises. So our preparation time for class right now is minimum wage, but for everyone else across the United States it is $12 an hour …

I find that to be a big win for us. I mean, I had to go through some pretty terrible and terrifying days of work during the forming of the union. But there are 1,000 other people out there who are able to buy some more groceries or whatever, because of the work we did … They offered those schools things like that [raise], and then they keep saying things to us like, “We’re sorry, as long as we’re in union negotiations, we can’t change anything” …

However, they feel free to change as many other things as they want: like they changed their policies on vacation … Changing their policies about our scores … instead of looking at our scores quarterly, they look at our scores every month now … So they do feel pretty free, it seems, to change their policies — as long as, you know, it benefits them. And by benefits them I mean … makes work worse for us.

The fact that your parent company no longer owns the Washington Post — has that made any difference … in terms of what it’s like to work [at Kaplan]?

I haven’t noticed any changes … All of us …  received kind of a company update from Donald Graham … he basically said Kaplan was the moneymaker behind the Graham Holdings Co., that we were what was driving the profits … But then we also see pay rates dropping, and teachers who have high rates of pay getting harassed for arbitrary reasons like the scores …

They’re telling the shareholders that Kaplan is making a lot of money, and that it’s extremely profitable. They’re telling the students … they’re the leader in the industry, and they’re one of the best schools for this type of thing. But then they’re telling us that we’re expendable … that our jobs aren’t really a very important part of the company, that if we leave it doesn’t matter — they can easily get someone else to replace us …

I’ve been teaching for eight years … Some of the best teachers that I’ve ever met in my career as a teacher have been at Kaplan. And they’re also people who have left, because Kaplan has made — it seems very actively — they’ve made the environment just a pretty poisonous place for teachers to stay.

How do you expect this conflict over this contract to end?

Honestly, I don’t know … I would be overjoyed if Kaplan decided to actually work with its teachers, and value its teachers the way it tells its clients it does … It seems like Kaplan is really willing to take a bullet and hurt themselves perhaps, hurt their own reputation, just to avoid paying their teachers a little bit more …

I had to go to work with strep throat. I took a couple days off, but then really couldn’t afford to take any more days off. So I went on WebMD, and then I went on another website and then ordered some pills from India, and while I was waiting for them to arrive in the mail, I went to class. And I just taught like that. So that’s not too unusual of an experience, I think, for a Kaplan teacher.

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