Before the sun came up, Yadira Martinez, a special education assistant at Florence Avenue Elementary School in South Los Angeles, toured her tiny kitchen, sautéing eggs and potatoes to share with her fellow strikers earlier this week on the picket line. .
She joked about the cramped confines: “You turn around, take one step, and you’re in the sink.”
Martinez, 53, has worked for LA Unified for 28 years, spending her days caring for young children with disabilities, diapering, feeding and teaching them. She makes about $32,000 a year and lives in low-income housing, paying $1,450 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 750-square-foot apartment.
He shares a bed with his 18-year-old granddaughter; his teenage daughter sleeps on the bunk above them. His powder room is in the living room, across from a small sewing station where she makes aprons, which he sells to supplement his income.
“It’s a dream of mine to have my own room,” he said.
For Martinez and many others public school workers who went on strike for three days this week, the crux of their fight is the ability to live decently in Los Angeles, where the exorbitant cost of housing places a brutal burden on the working class, forcing families to live in overcrowded houses or pushing workers to commute for hours to more affordable communities.
The average annual salary for bus drivers, custodians, special education aides, cafeteria workers and other members of Service Employees International Union Local 99 is $25,000. The median rent for a newly listed one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles County was $1,619 in February, according to Apartment List, more than $19,400 per year.
In a survey of about 3,300 members conducted by the union last year, about 10% of workers reported having been homeless at some point while working for the district. Nearly 30% reported being at “high risk” of becoming homeless.
LA Unified has recognized the struggles of its workers to pay for housing, and in recent years has worked with nonprofit developers to complete three affordable housing projects throughout the district.
Those projects resulted in 185 units in complexes in Gardena, Hollywood and South Los Angeles, more than 80% of which were leased to district employees. The district is also exploring the possibility of additional housing projects, district spokeswoman Shannon Haber said.
She said that LA Unified “has led the affordable housing effort for employees in the state and until recently, the District was the only school district in California to do so.”
But the district’s housing projects reach only a limited number of workers, and each has a waiting list of more than 100 people.
workers say the biggest effect would come from higher wages.
“The district is the second largest employer in Los Angeles County,” said Blanca Gallegos, spokeswoman for SEIU Local 99. “To address the homelessness problem that everyone has been talking about, one way is to improve jobs and wages so that people who work here in Los Angeles can live here in the city.”
The union aims to increase the average annual salary of its workers to $36,000, a 30% increase plus an additional $2 an hour for the lowest paid. The strike, which the union says is meant to protest alleged unfair labor practices, ended Thursday with Mayor Karen Bass set to continue mediating the dispute.
Henry Argueta, 68, has worked for the district as a special education aide since 2008. He is one of the staff members who was able to secure a unit at one of the district’s affordable housing projects in Hollywood. Before that, he rented a small studio in Pico-Union that had been converted from a motel room.
“You could barely walk there,” he said. “The heating worked, but there was no air conditioning. And she got really hot.”
His new place is a one-bedroom apartment with air conditioning, heating, underground parking and a view of Sunset Boulevard. But her rent has gone up since she moved in three years ago. She now pays about $1,300 a month, or nearly half the $32,890 she earned last year from her job with the district. She works a second job helping with political campaigns to make ends meet.
“I’m very lucky to pay what I’m paying right now,” he said. But, she added, “it’s still not that affordable.”
Gary Payne, 59, a building and grounds worker at San Pedro High School, has worked for the district for about 10 years and makes just under $20 an hour. He works full time, which puts him in a better position than many of his co-workers in the union who work only part time. Still, he said that he had to move to Menifee in order to afford a house.
Your trip is 90 miles each way. She wakes up long before dawn and drives for an Uber on her way to San Pedro, to help pay her mortgage and other bills.
“I’m pushing it,” he said. But he continues to make sure that he can retire in a few years.
Martínez was 20 years old, working as a waitress and attending university, not knowing what she would do with her life, when a friend asked her if she would be interested in working in a school with children with disabilities. She started out as a volunteer and quickly fell in love with the job, she said. When she is on campus, she feels like a second mother to the children.
“If they fall and hit their knees, we hug them,” he said. “If they don’t feel well, we know.”
She starts her workday early in the morning, supervising the kids on the school bus, which she started doing to earn extra pay.
“Those hours help a lot,” he said.
A few years ago, he started making smocks with pockets designed for school workers to store their supplies: tissues, hand sanitizer, markers, keys. She searches for fabrics with prints of Dr. Seuss, Disney and other characters for sale at Walmart and sells them for $13 each.
She makes ends meet with the help of her son, Leonardo Hernández, 24, who also works for the district as a building and grounds worker. Hernández has autism and Martínez is happy to have found a job where he has the support and understanding of his coworkers. But he wishes he didn’t have to depend on it.
“I want to be able to pay the rent by myself,” she said.
Before moving to the Huntington Park apartment where she now lives, Martinez lived with her brother in a house in South Los Angeles. So he had her own room, she said. But there was a lot of violence in the community and she felt that she had to leave to keep her children safe.
“Now we’re stuck here because everything has collapsed and we can’t move,” he said. “We can’t pay the $2,000 rent. That is too much.
On Wednesday morning, as Martínez and Hernández prepared for another day of picketing, the thought of the income they were losing from the three-day strike weighed heavily on them. Soon, they would have to pay rent again.
He’s busy. I’m worried,” she said. “I hope it pays off.”
A 30% raise would increase her salary to more than $41,000 a year. With that, she thought to herself, she would be able to move.
“If we win, we can probably get out of here,” he said. “Get a place with at least three rooms.”
Martinez handed Hernandez a plastic container filled with eggs and potatoes to share with his coworkers and reminded him to take off his gloves as he headed to his school for a day of picketing in the cold.
She put on a purple poncho to protect herself from the rain, grabbed the food she had prepared, and she and her daughter got in their car and headed to Florence Avenue Elementary School, where she greeted her co-workers and began another day of strike action.
Times staff writer Andrew Khouri contributed to this report.