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Peralta Changes Could Eliminate Benefits for Temporary Workers By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday August 02, 2005

The union representing the Peralta College District’s support workers has charged that Peralta administrators are setting up a permanent category of “second class workers” throughout the four-college district. 

At issue is a long-standing dispute between the union and the Peralta Community College District over the hiring of temporary support workers, and a possible change in district policy to reduce the weekly hours temporary staff may work from 40 hours to 19 hours, below the half-time (20-hours per week) threshold to qualify for health benefits. 

Members of Service Employees International Union Local 790 protested at last week’s Peralta College Board of Trustees meeting over the district’s employment practices, with promises of more action if suggested changes are not made. 

Wearing purple SEIU T-shirts, Local 790 members packed the board meeting room to listen to union leaders blast the district’s pending change to the 19-hour limit for support workers. Afterwards, they walked out in the middle of the meeting with chants of “We’ll be back!” 

Referring to the new 19-hour worker policy, SEIU Local 790 Field Representative Ben Holgate said in a telephone interview, “We felt this is simply another way for the district to get around doing the right thing by its temporary workers.” 

The purpose of the board meeting demonstration last Tuesday, he said, “was to put pressure on Chancellor Elihu Harris to sit down with us before any of the new 19-hour-a-week positions are filled. We also want the board to ban the practice of hiring 19-hour-a-week employees.” 

The 19-hour issue was not on the board’s agenda last Tuesday night, so board members could not take any action on the union request at that meeting. 

Representatives of the Peralta District did not return telephone calls in connection with this article. 

Peralta Federation of Teachers President Michael Mills said, “While PFT is not directly involved in this dispute and we are not going to interfere, we hope that it will work its way out. It’s not in our interest to have a continual turnover in support personnel for our teachers. Because of this practice, new support workers continue to have to be retrained, and that sometimes leads to a disruption in the delivery of our program to the students.” 

According to Holgate, the California Education Code requires that all school workers hired for more than 184 days in a calendar year must be given health and dental benefits. The 184 days are not actual working days, but are calendar days from the date of hire to the date of termination, including weekends and holidays. 

Holgate said that to get around providing employee benefits, the Peralta district regularly hires large numbers of temporary workers to work 40 hour weeks but for less than the 184 day period. He says that the number of Peralta workers under such conditions “is at least 300 over the course of the year.” 

At its June 28 meeting, for example, the Peralta Board of Trustees authorized the hiring of 153 such employees through Sept. 1, with hiring periods from one week to two months. That number included 64 instructional assistants, 33 clerical assistants, and 31 interpreters. 

Two years ago, the union sued the college district in California Superior Court over the practice. 

“We found that the district was using people more than 184 days in a calendar year, but still not paying them benefits,” Holgate said. “We sued to stop them.” That lawsuit is currently in settlement talks between the union and the district. 

In the meantime, according to Holgate, the district has begun advertising for 25 positions for 19 hours a week or less. These positions would be year-round.  

“We have heard it through the grapevine that the district intends to use these positions to replace the 40-hour-a-week part-time positions,” Holgate said. “The problem is that this would replace one second-class employee status with another one.” 

Workers in the 19-hour-a-week positions would not be eligible for district health and dental benefits, he said. At 960 hours a year, they would fall 40 hours shy of the 1,000 hour cutoff to qualify for the state retirement system (CalPERS). 

Holgate said that under the state education code the district was required to meet and confer with SEIU 790 union leaders before implementing the new 19-hour system. 

“At the point they began advertising, that was implementation,” he said. “We have asked to meet and confer, but the district hasn’t yet done it.” 

Holgate said the union doesn’t know yet what the effect will be on the district. 

“It appears that it would be a cut in service, however, to replace 40-hour-a-week employees with 19-hour-a-week employees,” he said. “We’re not sure how the work would get done. But it doesn’t look like this is being driven by the education needs of the institution, but by budgetary needs.”Ñ