U46 custodians protest as school boards meet in Chicago

wheaton member univision

Night janitors from school districts in Elgin, Rockford and Wheaton protest low pay and lack of days off outside a convention of Illinois school board members in Chicago Friday. | Submitted

Dave Gathman


Nov. 21 7:15 p.m.

CHICAGO — School District U46’s night custodians, hoping to get higher pay and some paid days off from the private contractor who employs them, are continuing to apply pressure against the U46 school board.

As the Illinois Association of School Boards held its annual meeting in a Chicago hotel Friday, about five of the U46 workers joined about 30 custodians from the Service Employees International Union who work for school districts in Wheaton and Rockford. They held signs with messages such as “U46 teachers got raises. What about me?”

The 172 night custodians work for GCA Service Group of Knoxville, Tenn. Their contract expired in June and they finally agreed to a one-year extension that gave them no pay raise and no insurance or paid days off. Several members have spoken to the U46 Board of Education in recent weeks, asking board members to apply pressure on GCA to give them a better deal.

Hugo Barrientos, who works at Kimball Middle School, said he was on the picket line Friday.

“We haven’t had a raise in four years, and that raise was 10 cents an hour,” Barrientos said. “I was making $10.70 before that and now for four years I have been making $10.80. Last week I was so sick, I had to call my supervisor and say I couldn’t make it to work that day. I lost one day’s pay because we get no paid sick days.”

“Thanksgiving should be a happy time, not a time to worry about a smaller paycheck,” said Shana Spearman, a custodian in Rockford Public Schools District 205 who also was on the picket line. “Working full-time without a single paid sick day or holiday isn’t right.”

Lonnell Saffold, a director with SEIU Local 1, said it is within the school boards’ power to dictate wage and benefit standards to the cleaning contractors they hire.

“There is still time for you to ensure that the men and women who keep your schools clean and healthy—many of whom are parents of U46 children—are treated fairly,” Saffold wrote in a letter to U46 board members last week. “At a time when infectious disease outbreaks in schools are rampant, supporting paid sick time is not only an issue of respect, it is a serious safety issue.”

“The national trend of outsourcing janitorial work in public schools should not result in a race to the bottom,” Saffold said. “Instead of inflicting poverty jobs on workers and their families, public school districts should be providing good jobs that build strong communities.”

But during a U46 board meeting last month, most board members and district officials seemed reluctant to intervene in the dispute. Chief Operating Officer Jeff King said the district rehired GCA to do the work under a new contract just last spring, and that contract lasts through 2019.

King said the contract specifies that the company must pay at least a certain minimum wage to its workers, based on four levels of duties and experience, but requires no benefits.

“We don’t get involved in negotiations between a contractor and its employees,” King said in answer to questions that night from board member Veronica Noland. He said it’s up to a contractor like GCA to say, “This is what we pay,” and in letting such a contract, the school district usually is obligated to pick the lowest bidder.

Noland said at that meeting that she wonders why the district can’t just use its own employees.

“There are cost efficiencies involved,” King said.



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