July 4, 2008 Volume 109 Number 13

Students replace full-time Portland school custodians

Labor peace for custodians was short-lived at Portland Public Schools (PPS).

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 represents PPS custodians, about half of whom were reinstated in September 2006, after the Oregon Supreme Court declared a 2002 privatizing decision by the school board was illegal.

In February, PPS signed agreements with SEIU and two other unions — ending long-running union contract standoffs at a time when the district was expecting to ask voters to approve $1.4 billion in bonds for building improvements. That bond request has now been shelved, and Llewellyn Elementary head custodian Mark Freimark — co-chair of the union’s PPS unit — says the district has returned to its attitude of undervaluing custodial work.

PPS told the union in early June it would be hiring 100 high school students at minimum wage to do custodial work 20 to 40 hours a week. At the same time, PPS is reducing its full-time permanent custodial workforce by 40 positions. The reduction will be achieved by leaving about 20 vacancies unfilled and laying off about 20 workers. Workers to be laid off were given the option of converting to part-time status —at $11.01 an hour with no benefits.

That wage is the union-negotiated rate for part-timers, wrote PPS spokesperson Sarah Carlin Ames in an e-mail responding to questions from the NW Labor Press. Ames said the district’s backing off its demand for significant wage reductions was accompanied by firm recognition by both sides that PPS had to meet its budget.

“The trade-off was explicit: Rather than maintaining the 285 full-time custodians that had been hired, PPS would shift to a workforce of 245 full-time custodians and a flexible workforce of 60 part-time employees.”

Freimark, who was present at the negotiations, denied that any such understanding took place.

“We think this shows the utter lack of respect that the school district has for front-line employees who are dedicated to the health and safety of children and teachers in these buildings,” said Local 503 spokesperson Ed Hershey.

June 30 was the last day for the laid-off custodians, who began work exactly one year before. Since the custodians were hired on the same date, layoffs took place on the basis of rankings in the civil service hiring process instead of seniority by date of hire.

On SEIU’s behalf, attorney Jim Coon filed a complaint June 23 with the PPS Custodial Civil Service Board, contesting the layoffs. The Board’s next meeting is July 17. Coon said the civil service law that covers PPS custodians has a process for laying off custodians when there is a lack of work; but there is no lack of work in this case.

The laid off workers included one of Freimark’s helpers at Llewellyn Elementary in Sellwood, a Bosnian immigrant who had spoken proudly about her work when Superintendent Carole Smith and two school board members visited the school last October.

“I think it’s rotten,” Freimark said. “She’s the best helper I’ve had in 20 years.”

The district’s May 29 ad on craigslist.org described the “temporary student summer custodial helper” jobs as an “exciting opportunity.”

Ames, PPS spokesperson, said the district has a tradition of hiring students for summer help. “This summer we are expanding on that past practice and offering more students short-term, part-time work.”

For now, Ames said, PPS expects the students to work just in the summer months, but the district is considering formalizing the student work experience as an apprenticeship or internship program.

“This could tie nicely into our Career Pathways work experience program,” Ames wrote.


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