Donnalee Morris of Centereach has been a crossing guard for...

Donnalee Morris of Centereach has been a crossing guard for Chippewa Elementary School in Sachem school district for seven years. she stands at her post outside the elementary school to direct traffic on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. Credit: Megan Miller

Suffolk County and its largest employee union have reached a deal to boost the pay of school crossing guards, in an effort to end a shortage of guards that has required some police officers to fill in during school drop-off and dismissal.

The deal will raise minimum hourly pay from $15 an hour to $18, providing guards with their first pay upgrade in more than a decade, according to leaders of the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees, the union that represents them.

There are about 430 crossing guards, and some 60 positions are vacant.

Officials said the salary increase will aid retention and recruitment of guards.

"What we had to do was get the county to understand the value of these crossing guards and the necessity to get these positions filled," AME President Daniel Levler told Newsday.

"The safety of our students is paramount and our crossing guards are crucial to that effort," County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement.

"This new agreement will allow the County to continue our ramped up recruiting efforts to ensure all posts remain filled," Bellone said.

The agreement, reached Monday, is expected to take effect Feb. 21 and cost about $623,000 a year, officials said.

Guards will receive contractual raises and an expected step raise in about five years, Levler said.

Also, the union will "be spearheading a recruitment drive," Levler said.

Crossing guards, who work part-time and receive full-time benefits, are civilian members of the Suffolk County Police Department.

They have traditionally made about minimum wage, which reached $15 on Long Island on Dec. 31, according to New York State.

Levler said the shortage of crossing guards began last year.

Some retired or resigned as the COVID-19 pandemic made people in many occupations reevaluate their jobs and lives, and it was "not easy to get people in the front door" for hiring, Levler said.

"We want to make sure that we're getting the best people to take these jobs. We don't want people turning down this important function because they can make a couple of bucks more somewhere else," Levler said.

County police officers occasionally have filled in for guards in the past, but have done so more frequently during the pandemic, Suffolk Police Benevolent Association President Noel DiGerolamo told Newsday.

"There are times where we have had over 50% of the cars in a given precinct on [crossing guard] post and only 50% or less were available to respond to calls," DiGerolamo said.

DiGerolamo said he expects the deal between the county and the AME to "alleviate a large percentage of the times where police officers are being tasked with crossing guard posts and unable to respond to emergency 911 calls."

AME Unit President Beverly Avgeros said guards work even when they need time off, often because there is not enough staff to cover for them.

"We've gone to work sick," said Avgeros, who works outside Hauppauge High School and Middle School. "We want to be there so that our children are taken care of properly."

Sachem school district crossing guard Donnalee Morris, 56, of Centereach, called the $3-an-hour raise "huge."

Morris, who works outside Chippewa Elementary School, told Newsday: "You see the headlines: ‘inflation, inflation, inflation.’ Everything's going up … And so, yes, this will help me tremendously."

Avgeros said the agreement with Suffolk recognizes "the unsung guardian angels" of local school districts.

"It makes me feel appreciated," said Avgeros, 70, of Ronkonkoma. "Because we stand out there in the rain, the snow, the sleet, the heat, freezing cold."

The agreement does not require approval by the Suffolk County Legislature.

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