Portland school custodians resist move to graveyard shift

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

Less than a year after custodians at Portland Public Schools beat back a possible staff cut in the already understaffed district custodial services, they're up in arms about a team-approach pilot plan that they say is intended to prepare the way for contracting out.

In a letter sent to employees in early January, custodial services interim manager Steve Stacey gave notice that custodians may be required to work "later shifts." One month's notice for schedule changes is required under the union contract. The district's custodians and cafeteria workers belong to School Employees Local 140, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

In an interview with the NW Labor Press, Stacey justified the change as an experiment in increasing efficiency. Though he said exact details have yet to be decided, the district would likely require junior custodial staff who currently work swing shift at Marshall High School and its nine feeder middle and elementary schools to switch to graveyard shift and travel around in a van from school to school performing janitorial work as a team, with each employee performing just one task, like cleaning floors, bathrooms, or emptying trash.

If management found this approach increased cleaning efficiency, they might then expand it to all the district's "clusters."

With support from the SEIU state council, Local 140 is fighting the plan.

Currently, custodians work day and swing shifts only, and have individual schools they're permanently assigned to.

Local 140 President Grant Walter argues that the pilot plan will make it more difficult to clean the schools and will put school safety and employee retention at risk. Graveyard shift is considered the most disruptive of sleep patterns and family life, and Walter predicted some workers would quit if they were required to work it.

Walter said the plan would also degrade the status of their work. Walter said he and the other custodians are more than janitors; they do maintenance and repair work, oversee the physical plant (such as the boiler room) and have supportive relationships with students and other school staff.

Union leaders charge that the pilot program is a way to prepare for contracting out. That's Local 140's worst nightmare - that the district might seek cost savings by replacing $33,000-a-year in-house custodians with janitors working for private-sector contractors at near the minimum wage.

Stacey's superior, Pam Brown, the administrator in charge of custodial and maintenance operations, said the district has no plan to contract out services.

An audit of Portland Public Schools in 1998 by the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick found that schools were not clean enough because of earlier cuts in custodial staff, and recommended more staff be hired. No such increase is planned, however.

Stacey, formerly a union officer with Local 140, said he now has an obligation to the taxpayer to increase efficiency. Cleaning efficiency suffers during swing shift, he said, because some rooms are still occupied by community groups that use the space, meaning custodians must clean around them and come back later.

In the letter to employees, Stacey called for volunteers for the pilot program; two workers have volunteered.

Union leaders at Local 140 have so far met with Brown and Superintendent Ben Canada. Members are circulating a petition and may take the issue before the school board.

January 19, 2001 issue

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