A disagreement over raises has driven the Long Beach Unified School District to an impasse with the union that represents over 2,100 of its classified employees, which include maintenance workers, instructional aides, bus drivers, nutrition workers and others.

The local chapter of the California Schools Employees Association, or CSEA, has been fighting to get a larger raise for its members, but the district has so far resisted—leaving a large gap between the two sides since June when the district rejected the CSEA’s demand of a 7% pay boost.

On Wednesday, state-guided mediation between the two parties began, but a post on the CSEA website said it didn’t yield any results.

“The district refused to move on its offer to you, the membership, and did not participate in mediation with an open and honest mind,” said the update, which also called for CSEA membership to rally at next week’s LBUSD Board of Education meeting.

Long Beach Unified has offered CSEA employees a 3% raise, which matches what teachers and administrators agreed to take earlier this year, but the CSEA membership and bargaining team said that wasn’t enough—citing the dangerous conditions and uncertainty brought on by COVID-19.

They want a 3% raise retroactive to July 2019 and a 4% raise retroactive to July 2020, which the CSEA bargaining updates refer to as the CSEA proposal of “seven cents on the dollar,” or, in essence, a raise totaling 7%.

The district said that idea is a nonstarter. “While the school district recognizes the significant contributions of CSEA during these difficult times, the district is not able to responsibly agree to this offer if it is to remain fiscally solvent in the future,” the LBUSD said in its last bargaining update on the negotiations, posted in June.

Previous CSEA presentations to the school board have emphasized that their membership deserved consideration for a larger raise than district teachers received because CSEA employees largely worked in person throughout the pandemic. At last week’s board meeting, union leadership pivoted to an argument about the expensive cost of living in Southern California, an issue for many blue-collar workers.

“We need a living wage here in the city,” said CSEA vice president Sergio Bonilla. “Fourteen dollars an hour does not cut it—we really do need that raise. … When you’re looking at low salaries, the percentage is a little bit of a farce. Teachers got 3%, well 3% of $60,000 is a lot more than 3% of $20,000.”

Vice president Enrique Chavez brought up that former LBUSD Superintendent Chris Steinhauser closed his tenure by discussing the massive changes that housing costs were likely to cause in the city and for the district.

“Our employees are parents; they’re concerned about, ‘Am I going to pay for rent, feed my children or take them to the doctor?’” said CSEA president Gilbert Bonilla Jr. “We’ve heard the district is in better shape than a lot of other districts, yet we see other districts giving 5% raises to their classified staff. We’re feeling undervalued. We’re not greedy. … We’re just trying to make ends meet.”

If mediation does not produce movement on either side—and it does not seem likely that it will—the CSEA can choose to go forward with a strike. The union has a membership meeting scheduled for Oct. 21, the day after the next school board meeting.

School workers are in a standoff over raises after a year on the COVID frontlines