By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
They’re “good will ambassadors” for the City of Portland. Wearing a uniform and a badge and working in pairs, they keep parks safe and clean, and serve as the front line of outreach to the homeless. Yet most of the City’s park rangers make $11 an hour, have no benefits, and get laid off after nine months. Could they please have a union now? That was the message a group of park rangers presented in a March 29 meeting with Mayor Charlie Hales.
“It was nice for him to take the time to meet with us,” says ranger Sam Sachs. “Unfortunately, they didn’t agree to recognize the union.”
Every one of the City’s 15 rangers signed a card saying they want to join Laborers Local 483, says Local 483 organizer Erica Askin, and nothing restricts the City from granting union recognition at that point.
“We certainly favor the workers’ ability to join a union,” said Hales’ spokesperson Dana Haynes, “and we look forward to the park rangers being part of the Laborers union.” However, Haynes explained, the mayor believes workers should unionize through a secret ballot election, not “card check.” A 2007 amendment to Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act gave public employees the right to unionize through card check, but public employers can still refuse that method and insist on an election in cases where workers are seeking to join an existing union.
[pullquote]Eleven dollars an hour. Honestly, it’s insulting.” — Portland park ranger Sam Sachs.[/pullquote]For the rangers, it makes a difference: Having the state Employment Relations Board schedule a union election delays the process by a month or two. And that’s a problem for the 11 of the 15 rangers who are classified as “seasonal” employees, most of whom will be long gone by the end of the year. City rules require that the seasonals be laid off after 1,400 hours, the equivalent of eight months at 40 hours a week.
Making seasonal jobs permanent would be the Number One goal once they get a union.
“We’re a unified group, the seasonals and the full-timers,” says Sachs. “All of us who are permanent were seasonal at one time.”
Sachs (permanent) makes $17 an hour and has health insurance, sick leave, vacation, and a retirement benefit. His partner (seasonal) does the same work for $11 an hour, with no benefits and a looming termination date.
“Eleven dollars an hour. Honestly, it’s insulting,” Sachs said.
Armed only with pepper mace, the rangers patrol parks to enforce bans on camping, drinking alcohol without a permit, and letting dogs run off-leash outside of designated areas. After two weeks of training in “verbal judo,” report writing, and radio handling, they head out to provide a security presence.
Last July, it was Sachs and his partner Asa Arden who — based on a description from a jogger who’d been attacked on the Wildwood Trail — led police to a homeless camper who was later convicted of several rape and sexual assault charges.
And last June, it was ranger Brian Tierney who discovered the body of teenager Mayra Sophia Cruz Rodriguez in Washington Park; a homeless man was later convicted of her murder and that of Nikayla Powell.
“We’ve shown our worth,” says Sachs, who used to work as a Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputy. “We’re the eyes and ears of the City in the parks.”
But at the end of an eight-month “season,” most rangers have unemployment to look forward to. There’s no guarantee of reemployment the following year, and generally, only about a third of them return.
“It’s stressful for me and my family,” says seasonal ranger Vicente Harrison, a 35-year-old father of two. Harrison — one of eight bike-riding rangers responsible for patrolling 21 downtown parks — says he loves the job: interacting with people, helping visitors, directing the homeless to services. But come September, he’ll be out of a job.
Askin says Local 483’s campaign to unionize rangers is part of a larger campaign against City reliance on low-wage, no-benefit, part-time, temporary and seasonal workers.
[UPDATE 5/14/13: City Attorney seeks to keep Portland’s $11-an-hour park rangers from joining union. See story.]