If a light bulb burns out at the preschool where she works, Bernice Young climbs a ladder to change it. If the trees in the yard lose their leaves, she comes out with the leaf blower. She mops the bathroom stalls and washes the classroom rugs. For the generations of kids ages 2 to 5 who call her Miss Bernice, she’s brought the blankets for naps and Cheez-Its for snacks.
After 23 years of cleaning preschools from Hollywood to South Los Angeles, she said, her wages increased from $10.01 an hour to $18.86 an hour. She barely makes ends meet to pay rent on a $2,000-a-month one-bedroom apartment she’s found.
“My hands are bad. My knees are bad. My legs are bad. But I come to work every day,” said Young, 58, who works at the Esther Collins Early Learning Center on 52nd Street in South Los Angeles. “I love my job, but the pay is horrible and has been horrible for many years.”
In Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the country, she is part of a legion of employees, from bus drivers to teacher aides, servers and janitors, who serve schools in the background and are, in many ways, the essential workers of campus operations. . Her 30,000-member union is preparing for a three-day strike on Tuesday as it campaigns for higher wages and will join teachers in solidarity.
With most employees expected to leave, the district is 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% wage increase plus an additional $2 an hour for the lowest-paid workers.
On Friday, the district increased its offer to Local 99, featuring a rolling 19% raise over three years and a one-time 5% bonus for those who worked in the 2020-21 school year. The district also launched a last-ditch legal effort Friday night with California labor regulators to halt or avert the strike, but it’s unclear if a decision will be made in time and there are no negotiations scheduled before the strike date.
The teachers’ union, also in the midst of contract negotiations, is seeking a 20% pay increase over two years and is also negotiating a broad list of initiativesincluding additional support for African American students and affordable housing for low-income families.
The closures caught parents by surprise, forcing them to find daycare or take time off work. Teachers are sending home work packets and computers. The school district and community organizations are drawing up plans to feed tens of thousands of children who rely on schools for most of their meals during the week. Los Angeles city and county parks departments are organizing activities and supervision throughout the day.
Young, who serves as a union strike captain, works full time and has health benefits. But she regularly stays beyond her eight-hour shift to finish the day’s tasks and is determined to do whatever it takes to improve working conditions.
“They take advantage of you,” he said. She is always on her feet. All day, honey, every day. I sit when it’s my lunch hour, my rest hour. Other than that, all day.
She said she hopes the strike will send a message.
“We don’t want to continue living in poverty all our lives,” he said. “Wages, that’s a big problem: working so long and not earning anything.”
At 56, John Lewis has been driving buses for the school district for 34 years, a job that now earns him $34 an hour. He gets on his yellow six-wheeler bus at the big Gardena depot at 5:30 a.m. and gets off at 5:30 p.m.
On his current route, he picks up and drops off about 50 students from Bancroft Middle School and Fairfax High. Some students are assigned to it for six years, taking them through childhood to the cusp of early adulthood.
“I love what I do. I love being around kids. We’re the first person they see in the morning and the last person they see when they get off the bus,” Lewis said. “Watching them grow, that’s amazing. … No It’s that we want to interrupt their education, but we have families and we want to be respected and earn a decent salary.”
The median salary for the Local 99 unit that includes bus drivers, janitors and food service workers is $31,825. The average annual salary for instructional aides, including special education, is $27,531. Teacher assistants on average earn $22,657. After-school program workers earn an average of $14,576.
About 24,000 Local 99 members work less than eight hours a day and about 6,000 have eight-hour jobs. More than 10,000 Local 99 members do not get health coverage through the school district.
Shaunn D (she declined to use her last name) works at Dorsey High in South Los Angeles as a representative for the Black Student Achievement Program.
Until this year, she had worked for 19 years as a parent and community representative at Bradley Elementary School, earning about $16 an hour. Both jobs have involved a little bit of everything, a common theme among Local 99 workers who are used to filling in the gaps of what is needed.
“Sometimes they just need words of encouragement,” he said of his students. “ Sometimes they just need to listen to people, or just talk and we listen. Some of these children are suffering and you can’t send a child to learn if they are suffering.”
He remembered a 10-year-old boy who came to school after his 31-year-old mother was murdered.
“I held this child in my arms like a baby, sitting in the nurse’s office, rocking him, because he couldn’t function that day,” she said. “He was so broken.”
At Dorsey, he receives students in the morning. Later in the day she takes care of the needs of black students.
“I have communication with the parents. I talk to the kids,” she said. “We also provide clothes or whatever the kids need, if they might not have shoes, or jackets or something like that.” There is no budget for this, but people will donate money or they will buy items out of their own pocket.
He said he feels bad that the students will be missing school. “It’s going to impact them.” But union action is important to maintain 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 children in college, who grew up watching her mother take a second job to make ends meet: “Don’t go into education. And that sounds bad, I know. But she didn’t want them to have to go through the struggles.”
For 24 years, Peniana Argüelles has 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 choose colors for their pictures, and gives them hugs when they cry.
Argüelles, who has worked as a special education aide in LAUSD for 24 years, said she considers herself blessed and “loves her job and her students.” She does not have a teaching credential, but works as a teacher’s right hand, working with children who have disabilities and special learning needs.
She and other paraprofessionals said their strike is about respect. They are among the lowest paid workers in the district. Aides who have worked with disabled students start at around $19 and can earn up to around $24 per hour. But they said their workload has become unsustainable.
Arguellas is particularly upset that the Los Angeles Unified School District is asking her to do more work outside of her assigned classroom duties, helping other students with homework and leading relaxing exercises with them.
“It is putting on two hats for the same salary,” he said. “It’s not fair.”
Kyle Sanchez, 35, works at the Rosa Parks Learning Center in North Hills with 18 special education students in a split fourth and fifth grade classroom. He said the class is “too big” for just him and results in “too many free hours.” He wants higher wages, but also reduced class sizes and help.
“We have reached the point where something needs to be done,” Sánchez said. “We need more staff, more money and some respect.”
These teacher aides 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 Roosevelt High School alumnus, said the extra work for special education teachers and assistants is a given.
Castro created a campus photography club specifically for students with special needs at the Elizabeth Learning Center that he said established “opportunities for children to express themselves through photography.”
“It seems that now it is expected to ‘go further,’” said Castro. “We love our children and our school, but at the end of the day, we need a living wage. We love LA, but we also have to be able to live here.”