At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, two of America’s largest school districts, Chicago and Philadelphia, closed a total of 73 public schools between the two cities. Thousands of employees were laid off, including many food service, janitorial and security workers. In Philadelphia alone, 1,202 safety staffers who prevent violence when students aren’t in class, were laid off.
These cutbacks are only the latest instances of a sustained effort to cut costs by eliminating unionized positions in public schools either by hiring support staff through private entities—like Aramark or Sodhexo—or by replacing traditional schools with charters, which are usually aren’t covered by a school district’s union contracts. There’s a vast difference between working in an unionized public school district and working in an unorganized school of any kind. For employees, non-teacher positions at non-union schools usually means little job or retirement security, limited (if any) health insurance, sick leave, vacations, and much lower pay.
“The last day of work was absolutely the hardest day of my life,” says Takeeva Thompson, who was just laid off from her job in the cafeteria of Kohn Elementary, an overwhelmingly African-American school in deep Southside Chicago. “I know we are looked at as being the unimportant staff in the school, but I took pride in what I did and I appreciated the relationship I had with those kids. I helped buy uniforms, I helped with homework, I helped with funerals because we lost children to gun violence. We are like second and third mothers to a lot of those children.”
Thompson’s job included helping the cooks prepare hot meals and doing other work around the kitchen, cleaning meat, chopping up fruits and vegetables, and keeping everything organized, but she often ended up assuming duties well outside of her official job. Thompson was part-time, usually working about five hours a day for about $12 or $13 an hour. But as a member of UNITE HERE Local 1 she received comprehensive healthcare and paid holidays, sick days and vacation.
“District-operated employment in these areas [custodial, food service, and transportation] provides good, stable jobs for community people looking for part-time work, for those with less formal education, for single parents,” according to a 2008 report from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. “Mistreatment of local employees…harms the social well being of the community. …Prior to outsourcing, many custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers have extensive employment history in their districts. Most live in the local community.” The authors go on to cite a 2004 Oregon study about contracting out non-teacher services, which found that for every 25 privatized jobs in public schools there is “a loss of $233,000 in earnings that would have been spent in the local economy.”
Thompson knows people who have ended up working in support position in charter schools, where they were paid between $9.22 and $10.80 an hour with healthcare benefits too expensive to afford.
“All of them complained about the respect issue, being written up or fired for really small things,” says Thompson. “You can go from 40 hours a week, and then if you speak up or say the wrong thing, you may go down from 40 to 16. It’s a big difference in the way that they are treated and the way that we are treated.”
Charter school proponents often cite flexibility in hiring and firing as one of the essential attributes of these private-public institutions, which have expanding enrollment steadily since the turn of the century. (During the 2009-2010 school year 1,627,403 students were enrolled in charters nationally, by 2012-2013 the number grew to 2,278,388.) The great majority of America’s 5,997 charter schools (that’s over 1,000 more than in 2009-2010) do not belong to a large network like KIPP, California’s Green Dot, or Philadelphia’s Mastery. Instead they are single site organizations, which usually lack the internal capacity to directly hire support staff. Positions are often outsourced either to international corporations, such as Sodhexo, or local companies like Los Angeles’ Royal Dining Foods which advertises “FOOD SERVERS AT NO EXTRA COST.” (They also offer janitorial services.) Phone calls inquiring about the meaning of “food servers free of charge” were not returned. Without knowing the details, it stands to reason that services can only be provided at a vanishingly low rate if the workers aren’t getting paid much and don’t get many benefits.