Photo illustration by Hal Marie Saga

Recent LAUSD strike underscores plight of the area’s “working poor”

Editor’s note: You may have noticed that we’ve started using Latine instead of Latino to describe those of Latin American descent. Here’s why.

As a school counselor for Antelope Valley Union High School District, Emily Finch drove to her job in Palmdale from her L.A. apartment from 2019 to 2021. Finch, 37, estimates that she spent about $500 per month on gas driving the 60-mile round trip to and from school. When the expense of traveling became too much, Finch moved to a job just five miles from where she lives. But, it came at a cost.

The median salary in 2021 for AVUHSD school counselors was $63,342, according to Glassdoor. This was a livable wage for the Los Angeles metro area, financial tech company SmartAsset reported last year. Their cost of living calculations for the country’s 25 largest metro areas concluded that a single adult like Finch needs to earn about $64,000 per year after taxes to “live comfortably,” or take home just under $2,500 every two weeks. Finch didn’t disclose how much her new position at Susan Miller Dorsey High School pays, but she said she took a pay cut choosing to work for the Los Angeles Unified School District. According to LAUSD’s most recent salary schedule, the hourly rate for a counselor aide was $19.81 per hour.

Fighting for fair wages

The three-day strike of LAUSD workers in March ended with the district agreeing to a “30% wage increase that will lift the average annual salary from $25,000 to $33,000 for workers providing essential student services” and to raise its minimum wage from $15 an hour to $22.52, SEIU Local 99 noted in highlights of the final agreement.

But, data indicates the raise is woefully inadequate for a staff worker with a family. More than twice the new minimum wage is necessary for a single adult to maintain a household with one child, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator (which was part of SmartAsset’s research methodology). The new pay rate also falls short in a two-worker household with a child. 

L.A. Mayor Karen Bass addressed the difficulties faced by school workers with children after a tentative deal was reached March 24 with Service Employees International Union, Local 99, which represents nearly 30,000 food service workers, custodians, special education assistants, teacher assistants, bus drivers and other LAUSD essential workers. “The fact of the matter is, the majority of SEIU 99 workers don’t just work in our schools,” Bass said in a joint news conference at City Hall with L.A. schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho, as reported by the L.A. Times.

“They are LAUSD parents as well. And today for too many hardworking people, working full time is just too hard—to put a roof over their heads and put food on the table,” said Bass. “This is about the high cost of living in Los Angeles. Los Angeles, as everybody knows, has become virtually unaffordable.”

Classified workers struggle to make ends meet

The union’s strike shined a light on the reality of the working poor in California, or residents who work full-time but remain in poverty. This includes LAUSD classified school workers, employees who are educational workers whose role does not require any teaching credentials. 

“A third of our classified staff faced housing insecurity,” said Finch. 

According to SEIU Local 99 membership data published in a union report, 48% of members are their families’ sole breadwinners. Under the new agreement, the maximum annual salary is now $33,000, but that amount for a family of four lies between what U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department guidelines consider very low income, $59,550 and extremely low income at $35,750.

Recent data reports the average teacher salary at Dorsey High was $90,556. This is about $5,000 below HUD’s low-income level for a family of four. The South Angeles high school’s students are predominantly Black and Latine. 

Concerned about inequities in school employees’ wages, Finch said her students at Dorsey asked her “‘How long can we just assume that [staff workers] are gonna be there when this is what they’re facing?’” Although she’s fond of her job at Dorsey High, Finch said that nearby districts, such as Culver City Unified, are “known for having really high wages.” 

“If you don’t feel like you can afford your next meal, or if you don’t feel like you can afford your rent, then you’re gonna go to a place where you feel like it’s more stable,” said Finch. 

In 2021, the number of Californians living in poverty would have been 10.3% higher, or 3.9 million people, if they couldn’t access social safety net programs (excluding social security) like CalFresh and federal and state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC). In Los Angeles County, the rate would’ve been 13.1% higher, according to a 2022 Public Policy Institute of California study.

At Palisades Charter High School, which serves the affluent neighborhoods of Pacific Palisades and Brentwood, nearly 80 employees earned more than $95,000 in the 2018-19 school year—up to $201,000. Palisades is an independent charter high school where 56% of students are white. The school rents its facilities from LAUSD and, unlike regular LAUSD schools and affiliated charters, the school is funded directly by the state. So, employees were able to retain their high salaries and benefits with the aid of the Paycheck Protection Program, money disbursed under the Cares Act COVID relief bill.

Cliff Brown, an elementary school aide to a resource specialist with the Inglewood Unified School District, said classified staff got a raise within the past year because their new union negotiated fairer wages. Brown, in his late 50s, declined to comment on his new salary and the name of the union. IUSD also declined to comment when contacted by AfroLA. However, 400 IUSD school workers voted to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union in March 2022. And, according to IUSD’s 2022-23 employee salary schedule, a classified employee like a bus driver makes between $3,276 to $3,927, depending on experience.

“Once this union took over, everything they petitioned for we got,” Brown said, “It’s not like we got something above what we had. I think we were getting what we were owed.”

Prior to recent pay increases described by Brown, the last union salary negotiations with IUSD—which resulted in a 3% increase—went into effect in 2015. 

The pay gap

The gap between Supt. Carvalho’s salary and the pay of the district’s workers is vast. SEIU Local 99 called out LAUSD and Carvalho on Twitter for “giving himself a 26% raise” and the school board for “giving themselves a 174% raise” while “sitting on $5 billion of reserves.” Carvalho’s four-year contract, approved by the school board in 2021, comes with an annual salary of $440,000. This puts him $200,000 away from the threshold for the nation’s top 1% of earners, who on average make $645,000 annually.

A protester’s sign at Roosevelt High School tweeted by the union during the SEIU Local 99 strike in March. (Photo courtesy SEIU Local 99)

Seventy-four percent of SEIU Local 99’s members are “Black and Brown women,” nearly half of whom are parents of school-aged children, per a recent tweet from the union. Fifty-five percent of Latine Californians, or 1.09 million people, are counted among the state’s working poor, according to PPIC. This is 15% higher than the state’s Latine population. At four percent, the state’s Black working poor—80,000 people— is just under the state’s 5% Black population. However, PPIC research estimates about 13% of Black Californians are considered poor.

In the agreement reached with LAUSD, seven hours of work per day are guaranteed for special education assistants. Special education assistant and SEIU Local 99 member, Henry Argueta, voted in favor of fairer wages and hours. “I’m going to be able to at least pay my rent with one check,” Argueta said in a video tweeted by SEIU Local 99. “It used to take about two-thirds of my earnings just to pay the rent.” Argueta pays $1,300 to rent an apartment in one of the district’s affordable housing projects in Hollywood, he told the L.A. Times in March.

The rent is too damn high

The average rent for a one-bedroom in Los Angeles is $2,762, according to April real estate data. Other factors, like rent hikes as high as 10% and record-high inflation, make it hard for the working poor to make ends meet. For LAUSD workers like Finch and Argueta, the math just doesn’t add up.

Even with the new $33,000 annual salary in the tentative bargaining agreement with the district, SEIU Local 99 workers would make $2,750 a month, based on the assumption they are given full-time hours. Given market housing prices, this leaves workers barely getting by. 

On April 18, United Teachers Los Angeles—who supported SEIU Local 99 in their strike efforts—negotiated a new contract that gives LAUSD teachers a 21% wage increase, raising the average annual salary to $106,000.

This new agreement is a remarkable win for certified staff with teaching credentials. Raising salaries for classified employees is moving much slower. But, the tentative agreement between SEIU Local 99 and the district is a step closer to thousands of LAUSD workers making livable wages.

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