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

While the Long Beach Unified School District reached a contract with its teachers’ union in April, negotiations are dragging on with the district’s second-largest union, which represents over 2,100 classified employees like maintenance workers, instructional aides, bus drivers and nutrition workers.

Members of the Long Beach chapter of the California Schools Employees Association have been arguing they deserve larger raises than the LBUSD is offering after being on the frontlines of the district’s COVID-19 response.

“During these times of a pandemic when everybody was completely afraid to leave their house in fear that they were going to literally die, we were there working,” HVAC technician Brandon Record told the LBUSD Board of Education in a message played at a recent meeting. The district, however, has held firm.

Talks between the two sides stalled in June according to bargaining updates. As well as a disagreement over health benefits for part-time employees, the two sides are far apart on pay.

The district’s recent agreement with the Teachers Association of Long Beach included 3% in salary increases (1% retroactive to July 1, 2019, and 2% to July to July 1, 2020), an offer also accepted by LBUSD administrators. The district made the same offer to the classified employees, according to a CSEA bargaining update, but the CSEA membership and bargaining team rejected it.

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 says 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 a bargaining update.

In emotional voicemail testimony to the LBUSD Board of Education at the most recent meeting, CSEA members and leadership made their case for the larger raise.

“The members feel that we’re not being valued,” said Gilbert Bonilla, Jr., president of the Long Beach CSEA chapter. “We were here for the whole pandemic, exposing ourselves and putting our families at risk. We were here doing all the work we do to support the students for nutrition, Chromebooks, et cetera. … Our people don’t feel like we’re valued at three cents on the dollar. We’re asking for seven cents on the dollar.”

Vice presidents Sergio Bonilla and Enrique Chavez brought up that classified employees on average make less than teachers and administrators, which means the raise doesn’t do as much to address cost-of-living increases, and that the increase in health care costs for part-time employees has a bigger impact.

Callers also brought up that while initial budget projections for the district last summer were dire, the much-feared California budget-slashing never came after the state ended up with a surplus. The district, they also point out, is maintaining financial reserves of more than $200 million.

A message from Record, the HVAC technician, also addressed a sentiment that’s been prevalent through the CSEA ranks since the beginning of the pandemic: The classified employees did not have the option to work from home that teachers and many members of administrative staff had. That meant that child care and other issues hit them harder, especially with schools closed to students.

“Implementing all of your new protocols and rules and mandates. We made that happen … at the time when other employees and teachers went home,” Record said. “I believe that we deserve a fair raise more than somebody that went home. We were there, we made it happen, we made everybody look good.”

The distance between the two parties leaves things at an impasse. The CSEA didn’t reach an agreement for COVID-19 employment conditions with the district until Nov. 18, well into the school year, with membership citing similar frustrations in the fall that they’re expressing during this negotiation.

What happens next is unclear. It’s very unlikely that the LBUSD would come back with an offer for a raise higher than teachers received, and the district noted in its bargaining update that “the school district has offered the same raise provided and accepted by the Teachers Association of Long Beach and management employees.”

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