Civil Service Board orders reinstatement of school custodians

The Custodial Civil Service Board has ordered the reinstatement of 92 custodians and assistant custodians (classified as helpers) fired by the Portland School District to make room for contract janitors.

The school district has appealed.

A complaint filed by Tamara McWilliams, Henry Shambry Jr. and 90 other custodians - all members of School Employees Local 140, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) - claimed their terminations violated state law.

The Civil Service Board, which was established by the Oregon Legislature in 1937 to set hiring qualifications and examinations for custodians in the Portland School District, agreed. The three person board stated:

"The characterization as a 'layoff' or 'reduction in force' are an intentionally false characterization of the facts. The action taken by the PPS permanently terminates the complainants and places non-civil service employees of a private contractor to perform 'custodial service.' "

The Civil Service Board maintains that state law gives it the authority to approve or reject terminations of custodians in Portland schools. The school district says the board doesn't have that authority and has filed a "writ of review" in Multnomah County Circuit to overturn the decision.

In June, the school board voted 5-2 to fire all 306 school custodians and contract the work to Portland Habilitation Center (PHC) in an attempt to reduce what is expected to be a $36 million budget shortfall next year. PHC is a not-for-profit rehabilitation employer. [The landscape division of PHC is on the Do Not Patronize List of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council at the request of Laborers Local 483, which is trying to secure a first contract after workers voted to join the union.]

In an effort to help the school district save money, Local 140 opened its contract in mid-term to negotiate wage concessions. Instead, school administrators pushed them out the door with unreasonable demands for wage and benefits cuts, job changes and more.

Grant Walter, president of Local 140, said the union is preparing legal action against the school district for failure to bargain in good faith.

To date, 136 custodians have been let go. Another 170 have received pink slips and will remain on the job until Aug. 23. Walter said the remaining custodians are continually being reassigned to different schools so as not to intermingle with any new contract janitors. [PHC has a contract with sister SEIU Local 49 of Portland.]

PHC is running advertisements in local newspapers seeking applicants for janitorial jobs.

In the ad, PHC says it is seeking "individuals with experience in janitorial service" for "on the spot interviews." The ad requires applicants be able to read and write English and be able to pass a background check. Only at the bottom of the ad does it seek persons with disabilities, reading: "Equal Opportunity Employer," and "Persons with disabilities encouraged to apply."

By state law, public agencies must first consider Qualified Rehabilitation Centers (QRFs) if they contract out custodial work. To be considered a QRF, 75 percent of a company's labor hours must be performed by workers who are not capable of normal competitive employment.

Under the statute, a disabled worker is specifically defined as "an individual who, because of the nature of disabilities, is not able to participate fully in competitive employment, and for whom specialized employment opportunities must be provided."

PHC doesn't have enough employees to meet that standard. Company spokesperson Debra Houston told the school board July 8 that PHC would initially hire any workers while it searches for new employees with disabilities. However, according to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS), which administers QRFs, that's against the law.

In response to an inquiry by the Fair Competition Alliance - an organization of independent businesses that has been tracking QRFs for the past eight years - DAS official Rob J. Rickard wrote that to become a certified QRF an organization must "during the fiscal year employ disabled individuals for not less than 75 percent of the man-hours of direct labor required for the manufacture or provision of the products or services."

He said if an organization does not meet the requirement it will not be recognized as eligible for a QRF contract. Walter said Local 140 will file a complaint with DAS over the 75 percent rule.

Survey shows voters disapprove of firings

A recent survey of voters in the Portland Public School District concludes that seven in 10 disagree with the decision by the school board to fire the custodial staff. Moreover, 54 percent of district voters believe that children will be less safe at school with the new custodial staff.

The telephone survey of 300 voters was taken July 30-31 by Moore Information.

August 16, 2002 issue

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