When a light bulb goes out at the preschool where she works, Bernice Young climbs the stairs to replace it. When the trees on the playground shed their leaves, she comes out with a leaf blower. She cleans the toilets and shampoos the carpets in the classroom. She brought blankets for sleep and Cheez-Its for snacks to a generation of 2- to 5-year-olds who call her Miss Bernice.
After 23 years working at preschools from Hollywood to South Los Angeles, she said, her pay went from $10.01 an hour to $18.86 an hour. This is barely enough to rent the one-room apartment she found for $2,000 per month.
“I have bad hands. My knees are bad. My feet are bad. But I come to work every day, said Young, 58, who works at the Esther Collins Early Childhood Center on 52nd Street in South Los Angeles. “I love my job but the pay is terrible and has been terrible for years.”
At Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, she’s part of a legion of employees — from bus drivers to teacher’s aides, food servers and janitors — who serve the schools in the background and are, in many ways, vital campus workers. . Its 30,000-strong union is preparing for a three-day strike on Tuesday to demand higher wages. teachers joined in solidarity.
Most employees are expected to be absent, with the district keeping its 420,000 students off campus and not providing live instruction, though all employees will be able to report to their workplaces.
Young’s union, Service Employees International Union Local 99, is pushing for a 30% pay increase plus an additional $2 an hour for the lowest-paid workers.
On Friday, the district increased its offer to Local 99, presenting a permanent raise of 19% over three years and a one-time bonus of 5% for those employed in the 2020-21 school year. The district also launched a last legal effort late Friday with California labor regulators to end or prevent a strike, but it is unclear if a decision will be made in time and no talks are scheduled before the strike date.
The teachers union, which is also in the midst of contract negotiations, is seeking a 20% pay increase over two years and is also negotiating a wide-ranging list of initiativesincluding additional support for black students and affordable housing for low-income families.
The parents were caught in the loop out of the blue, sending them looking for daycare or taking time off from work. Teachers send home packets of homework and computers. The school district and community organizations plan to feed tens of thousands of children, who mostly eat at schools, during the week. The Los Angeles City and County Parks Departments provide daytime activities and supervision.
Young, who serves as the union’s strike captain, works full-time and has health benefits. But she regularly stays after her eight-hour shift to finish the day’s chores and is determined to do whatever it takes to improve working conditions.
“You are being taken advantage of,” she said. She is always on her feet. “All day, dear, every day. I sit down when it’s lunch time, break time. Besides that, the whole day.”
She said she hoped the strike would send a signal.
“We don’t want to live in poverty all our lives,” she said. “Salary, it’s a big deal – working so long and not earning anything.”
At 56, John Lewis has been driving buses for the school district for 34 years, and the job now earns him $34 an hour. He boards his six-wheeled yellow bus at the large Garden depot at 5:30 a.m. and gets off at 5:30 p.m.
On its current route, it picks up and drops off about 50 students from Bancroft High School and Fairfax High School. He is assigned some students for six years, guiding them through childhood on the threshold of early adulthood.
“I love what I do. I love being around children. We are the first person they see in the morning and the last person they see off the bus,” Lewis said. “It’s amazing to see them grow. … It’s not that we want to interrupt their education, but we have families and we want to be respected and make a decent living.”
The average salary for Local 99, which includes bus drivers, custodians and food service workers, is $31,825. The median annual salary for instructional assistants, including special education, is $27,531. Teaching assistants earn an average of $22,657. After-school program staff earn an average of $14,576.
About 24,000 Local 99 members work less than eight hours a day, and about 6,000 work 8 hours. More than 10,000 Local 99 members do not receive health insurance through the school district.
Shawn D. — she did not want to give her last name — works at Dorsey High in South Los Angeles as a representative for the Black Student Achievement Program.
Until this year, she worked for 19 years as a community and parent representative at Bradley Elementary School, earning about $16 an hour. Both jobs involved a little bit of everything, a common theme among Local 99 employees who are used to filling in the blanks with what’s needed.
“Sometimes they just need words of encouragement,” she said of her students. “Sometimes they just need to hear people — or just talk, and we’ll listen. Some of these kids are hurting, and you can’t send a kid to school if they’re hurting.”
She recalled a 10-year-old who came to school after his 31-year-old mother was killed.
“I was holding that boy like a baby, sitting in the nurse’s office rocking him because he couldn’t work that day,” she said. “He was so broken.”
At Dorsey, she greets students in the morning. Later that day, she addresses the needs of black students.
“I have communication with my parents. I talk to the kids,” she said. “We also provide clothing or whatever the kids need if they don’t have shoes or jackets or anything like that.” There is no budget for it, but people will donate money or she will buy things out of her own pocket.
She said she felt bad that students would miss school. “It will affect them.” But union action is important to sustaining the livelihoods of those who want to work in public schools.
“I do this because I love children,” she said of her role. But she tells her own college-age kids — who grew up watching their mothers take second jobs to make ends meet — “Don’t get into education. And that sounds bad, I know. But I didn’t want them to go through the struggle.”
For 24 years, Peñana Arguelles worked as a special education assistant in Los Angeles Public Schools.
At Menlo Avenue Elementary School in South Los Angeles, Arguelles feeds children who can’t hold a fork. She changes their diapers, helps them pick colors for paintings, and hugs them when they cry.
Arguelles, who has worked as a special education assistant in LAUSD for 24 years, said she feels blessed and “loves her job and her students.” She does not have a teaching certificate, but serves as a teacher’s right hand, working with children with disabilities and special learning needs.
She and the other teacher’s aides said their coming out was about respect. They are among the lowest paid workers in the district. Aides who worked with students with disabilities start at about $19 and can earn up to about $24 an hour. But they said their workload had become erratic.
Arguellas is particularly annoyed that the Los Angeles Unified School District is asking her to do more work outside of her classroom responsibilities — helping extra students with assignments and doing calming exercises with them.
“Wear two hats for the same salary,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
Kyle Sanchez, 35, works at Rosa Parks Learning Center in North Hills with 18 special education students in a segregated fourth- and fifth-grade classroom. He said the class was “too big” for him alone and resulted in “too many overtime hours.” He wants higher pay, but also reduced class sizes and benefits.
“We’ve reached a point where we have to do something,” Sanchez said. “We need more staff, more money and a little respect.”
These teaching assistants said the public doesn’t understand the work their members do to keep schools running.
Serios Castro, 35, a “proud product of LAUSD” and a graduate of Roosevelt High School, said the extra work for special education teachers and aides is taken for granted.
Castro started an on-campus photography club specifically for students with special needs at the Elizabeth Learning Center, which he said created “an opportunity for kids to express themselves through photography.”
“It seems like the expectation is just now to ‘move on,'” Castro said. “We love our kids and our school, but at the end of the day we need a living wage. We love Los Angeles, but we also have to be able to live here.”