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Striking teachers say pay gap created by influx of tech workers makes Seattle tough to afford

SEATTLE – Teachers in Seattle have gone on strike as living expenses skyrocket in one of the nation’s bastions of technology jobs, complaining it is increasingly difficult to afford living in the same city as the children they teach.

The educators, who have not received a cost-of-living pay raise in six years, have joined other workers pushing for higher wages as the city tries to balance its identity as a hub for tech talent while keeping housing and other costs within reach.

Olga Addae, a science teacher at Franklin High School, walked the picket line Thursday with other union members who said they will stay out of the classroom until Washington state’s largest school district offers a fair compensation package and agrees to stop cutting student services.

“We’re doing this for the students and for a better school system,” said Addae, a teacher of 21 years.

Teachers want to live close to their schools and be a part of those communities, but rents continue to rise while educators’ salaries have stagnated, she said.

Seattle Public Schools, with 53,000 students who have been shut out classes for two days, has offered a pay increase of nearly 9 per cent over three years. The teachers union countered with a 10.5 per cent increase over two years.

Teacher salaries range from about $44,000 to more than $86,000 for more experienced educators with advanced degrees, according to the district. In comparison, tech workers can easily draw six figures.

“There’s a giant tech surge here in Seattle, with Google and Twitter opening offices,” said Tom Leung, co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based Anthology, which connects professionals with employers. “Apple. Cisco. Ebay. It’s a who’s who of tech.”

The companies have run out of workers and space in the San Francisco Bay Area, so they’re looking to the Northwest as a key region to add talented staff, he said.

“It has created an intense amount of competition for highly skilled tech workers,” Leung said. “A typical tech engineer can make $150,000 without trying very hard. That does create an impact on the rest of the city. You see rent, real estate prices being impacted by this major growth of these high-disposable-income individuals.”

And with more of them, “you’ve got everybody else who’s trying to keep up,” he said.

Many teachers say they are scrambling to afford living expenses as Amazon, Facebook and other companies increase hiring in the area. Microsoft, a longtime stalwart of the local economy based east of Seattle, also employs many who live in the city.

Rents have ballooned by more than 37 per cent since mid-2010, according to Apartment Insights Washington. The median rental price for homes in Seattle in July was $2,354 a month, Zillow reports, compared with a national average of $1,376.

The city is having a housing crisis because more than 40 per cent of the new jobs in the region are with Amazon or Boeing, and their starting salaries are twice as much as a teacher who has been on the job for years, Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata said.

“They’re bringing in tons of people, but affordable housing is disappearing,” he said. “That means the people who are educating our children are finding it difficult to live in the city where the children they teach live.”

Wages and affordability have dominated the political landscape in Seattle recently. After a strong push from labour activists, the city last year adopted a phased-in $15-an-hour minimum wage. Scheduled increases depend on business size and will bring base pay to $15 by 2017 or 2018 for large businesses and 2021 for smaller ones.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said that besides stalled cost-of-living increases, teachers have gone five years without a boost in funding for health care costs.

“Seattle needs to attract and keep caring, qualified educators in one of the most expensive cities in the United States,” she said.

With the strike entering its second day Thursday, the district and union remained stuck on pay raises, teacher evaluations and other issues.

The sides failed to reach an agreement on a contract Tuesday.

Classes are cancelled for another day Friday.

Seattle Public Schools spokesman Stacy Howard said Thursday afternoon that both sides are continuing to meet with mediators, but negotiations have not resumed.

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Follow Martha Bellisle at https://twitter.com/marthabellisle .