Are Certain School Employees Treated Unfairly?

By Rick Mercurio

No raise in 10 years, no health benefits, scant safety protection, the dirtiest jobs, and little hope of a promotion: substitute custodians in Escondido’s elementary school district say enough is enough.

Non-teaching school employees in the state are represented by the California School Employee Association, or CSEA. Carmen Miranda, the past president of Escondido’s CSEA, described poor working conditions and a dead end job situation for 11 substitute custodians. “They just want to be treated fairly,” she said. A district official, however, disputes the allegations.

Miranda said that the custodians are skeptical of speaking out publicly for fear of losing their jobs. Miranda met privately with five of them recently to listen to their stories. Some told her that other employees intimidated them by saying, “You should just be happy to have a job.” Fear helps explain the subs’ long silence, and their reluctance to give their names for this article, according to Miranda.

The subs say that they have been working hard and virtually non-stop at their jobs, which are meant only to fill in for sick or otherwise absent full timers. “It is as if they themselves were full time, with none of the pay or benefits,” Miranda said. She accused the district of exploiting the workers in order to save money on making them full time. Those savings would include sick time, overtime pay, health coverage, vacation time, pay raises, and job promotion opportunities.

After ten years, the subs have mastered their positions to the point that some have been asked to train new employees, according to Miranda. If they were anything less than completely qualified as a full time employee, then why would they be used as mentors, she wondered.

Furthermore, Miranda alleges that the subs are given the most demanding and dirtiest jobs compared to full time custodians. She said that while full timers are given light duties, subs mop floors using heavy water buckets; subs are asked to clean the dirtiest restrooms; and subs’ carpet cleaning duties involve bulky, heavy equipment. Miranda insists that the subs are not so much complaining about the duties, but rather their unequal treatment.

Miranda also says that because the subs’ primary language is Spanish, their potential for advancement has been unfairly limited by district hiring practices. “They understand English more than they can speak it,” she said, “but they know it adequately in order to do their job right.” At job interviews, she believes the deck is stacked unfairly against them.

Kevin Rubow, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, denies any wrongdoing or abuse by the district. He said a merit system is used, similar to civil service, as required by the California Ed. Code. “To ensure objectivity in scored, structured interviews, we utilize panels of two or more raters from nearby school districts who do not know the candidates,” he said. “Candidates who successfully complete the testing process are placed on an eligibility list in order of relative score as determined by all test parts. Candidates are then certified from the eligibility list in order of final ranking.”

Rubow admits that subs are used on a regular basis, but he dismissed claims of exploitation. “Substitute employees are not used in lieu of permanently filling custodial positions, only to serve temporarily in positions held by permanent employees who are on a temporary leave of absence,” he said. “The District actually pays more during such absences by continuing to pay the permanent employee his/her normal pay rate during the absence in addition to paying for a substitute to cover the assignment.”

The subs have not had a pay raise in at least ten years, Rubow acknowledged, and he cited only one district, Carlsbad, with a lower pay rate than Escondido’s, out of forty-two districts in San Diego County. “We are also exploring options to modify the substitute salary schedule to maintain parity with other neighboring school districts,” he said.

As for subs being used to train new employees, Rubow said, “Crew Leaders are responsible for providing training to new employees. It is not the District’s practice to utilize a substitute custodian to train a new employee, as that is a key responsibility of the Crew Leader.” Miranda believes that Crew Leaders, perhaps unbeknownst to district officials, may very well utilize subs for training purposes. Rubow did not mention any plan to investigate.

Safety equipment is available to subs, Rubow claimed. “These supplies are kept at the M&O yard and restocked/charged regularly to ensure availability to all staff on a given day,” he said. “When a substitute fills in for a permanent employee, the substitute would use these same supplies.” He did not comment on whether he knew for certain that subs actually end up on the job with all the safety gear he listed.

Rubow said that subs perform the same duties as the permanent custodians they are replacing. “Substitutes are assigned to fill in for such a large variety of cleaning routes that it would be virtually impossible to assign them each day to significantly more demanding responsibilities than that of other custodial employees,” he said. With Crew Leaders in charge of supervising the custodians, however, district officials are not in a position to monitor the distribution of specific duties to each crew member. Rubow did not offer to verify the actual assignment of duties by Crew Leaders.

Overtime pay is available to subs, according to Rubow, based on their hours worked, using guidelines from the California Dept. of Industrial Relations. But he justified the district’s overtime policies, citing the contract. “The District first offers overtime assignments to permanent employees as members of the collective bargaining unit,” he said.

Despite Rubow’s claims, Miranda stands by her assertion that substitute custodians deserve better treatment by the district. “Mr. Rubow is not being honest with answers and they will continue to abuse these poor people,” she said.

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