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Scarborough school custodian deal headed to mediation

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Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 5:57 pm

SCARBOROUGH – Plans to outsource janitorial work at Scarborough schools have sent contract negotiations to state mediation.

Custodians and food service workers have been working without a contract in Scarborough since July. In that time, nine meetings have been held between officials from state and local labor unions and the school board’s negotiating team, led by Jackie Perry.

According to Crystal Goodrich, president of the Scarborough Education Association, a tentative deal was in place as recently as last month, but it was yanked away at the last minute and replaced with the outsourcing option, which she called a “direct attack” on support staff. The plan purports to save Scarborough more than $300,000 per year by hiring an outside crew to clean 612,631 square feet of building space now maintained by an in-house staff of 28, about half of whom are full-time employees.

“We were told, look at this and figure out what you are going to propose,” said Goodrich late last week. “We said, in negotiations you don’t offer your own cuts, so, we wanted a proposal from them. Well, they came back with something that was so low that we couldn’t even counter-proposal.”

“I’m not really sure why it would be characterized in that way,” said Superintendent George Entwistle, on Monday. “There’s not much I can say, but I think we’ve been forthright from the beginning about our need to explore whether or not there are savings. We shared the proposals with the union early on and discussions have been ongoing.”

Still, with no agreement in sight following the most recent meeting March 11, John Alfano, a veteran mediator for the Maine Labor Relations Board, was assigned to sit down with both sides in late April.

A year ago this month, school administration put out a request for proposal to area cleaning companies. In June, just week’s before the custodian’s contract expired, three firms – BSC Cleaning and UGL-Unicco, both of South Portland, and Benchmark Cleaning Services of Portland – submitted bids. Facilities Director Todd Jepson says those quotes presented savings of between $230,000 and $356,000 on the $1.1 million now paid in salary and benefits for the school department’s 28 custodians, who average $14 per hour.

Goodrich says the last offer by the school board team on March 11 was “essentially the same as being outsourced.” The cleaning companies, she says, have a starting rate of $9 per hour and offer their employees no benefits. The school board, she said, was willing to forego cutting the custodians loose if the union would agree to drop starting pay from $13.55 per hour to $10 and eliminate health benefits.

“It wouldn’t even be a living wage,” said Goodrich, who noted that employees could buy into the school’s health plan, but only by covering up to 60 percent of premiums out of pocket.

The benefits package now available after the first year of employment includes 80 percent coverage of health insurance premiums for both individual and family plans and 90 percent premium payment for dental, along with life insurance and Maine State Retirement coverage.

“But then,” said Goodrich, “they also decided to expand into people who weren’t even up to be outsourced, and cut their benefits as well, to save even more money.”

That meant the same loss of health benefits for 25 food service workers, who are employed full time, but only during the school year. While Entwistle acknowledged that cutting the custodians loose is an option which remains on the table, he gave an emphatic, “No,” when asked if there are plans to also target kitchen staff.

“I don’t really know what she [Goodrich] would be talking about there,” he said.

Meanwhile, Goodrich says the union has offered up about $300,000 in savings to be had from juggling and consolidating managerial duties.

“It was a lot of logistical stuff, including some position cuts,” said Goodrich. “If the goal is to save money, we believe there are ways to do that without putting it all on the backs of employees.”

Entwistle said the union plan didn’t gain much traction on the administration side of the negotiating table.

“There have been opportunities for the union to come forward and identify any plans they may have in terms of being able to save money,” he said. “You can see where negotiations have landed.”

While mediation attempts to broker peace in the $300,000 battle, high school custodian Josh Collins has said it’s administrators who are bleeding the budget. In Entwistle’s proposed budget, administrative costs are up 9.6 percent.

“We’re the lowest earners, we’re the bottom of the totem pole. It’s like going after the little guy just to save a couple of bucks,” Collins said in a prior interview.

Welcome to the discussion.