When dozens of custodians in San Antonio lost their jobs last year, the layoffs had a domino effect. First, the custodians fortunate enough to keep their jobs soon were forced to work more hours, often without pay, to make up for the loss of their co-workers. Next, food service workers were required to do all the kitchen and cafeteria cleaning on top of their regular duties.
The food workers’ new tasks included hauling 55-pound trash bags, moving tables and chairs, damp mopping and lifting heavy buckets of water and cleaning equipment. “We had accidents left and right,” says Rachel Martinez, vice president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.
Cleaning the kitchen between lunch periods also brought up concerns about contamination of students’ meals because the kitchen staff had to dispose of filthy garbage and wash tables and floors, only to begin cooking and serving meals shortly thereafter.
It didn’t take long for the San Antonio Alliance to see that these layoffs were much more than a matter of jobs and workloads. What was at stake was the health of the workers and students.
The union formed a task force of members to map out an action plan. It created a survey to find out how much extra time custodians and kitchen staff were working. Both groups often were forced to work past their shifts to complete additional assignments for which they were untrained and often unpaid—a clear violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. They also reported large numbers of injuries, such as cuts, chemical burns and rotator cuff strains. “These weren’t accidents,” Martinez notes. “They were preventable injuries.” In fact, many of the cafeteria employees had to use their sick days to recover from physical stress on the job.
It took some time, but after a year of consultations with school board members, the district came through—restoring 64 positions and reinstating an eight-hour day for custodians whose hours had been cut. And Martinez was able to insert language into the food workers’ job description that will protect them from having to work outside their job classifications. The contract also will provide clearer lines of authority as well as better scheduling, tools and training.
San Antonio, along with other districts across Texas, is facing ceaseless outside efforts to divert funding from public schools. The San Antonio alliance overcame one such attempt last year to outsource operations and maintenance jobs.
Texas AFT has been fighting hard to mitigate an unprecedented $5.4 billion in statewide cuts to schools and libraries. Together with parents and many other allies, AFT activists are getting ready for the Legislature’s next session in January, when they will try to reverse those cuts and restore education opportunities for 5 million students in Texas. [Luke Anapolis, Annette Licitra/photo by Jody Horton]
July 18, 2012