Fulani Offuti has been an hourly worker in the Parks and Recreation Department for 11 years, working most recently in James Kenney Park’s inclusionary program, where disabled and able-bodied children are integrated into recreation activities.
After working in the summer program, Offuti anticipated employment as usual in the after-school program, but two weeks before the fall program was to begin, Offuti and six of her co-workers received letters announcing they would be offered no hours in the fall and spring.
“I was shocked,” Offuti told the Daily Planet outside the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting Monday evening. The week before receiving the “no hours” memo, the six hourly workers in the inclusionary program and one worker in the regular after-school program had been asked by their supervisor to turn in a schedule of their availability, leading all to believe they would be working in the fall after-school program, as many had done for years.
City administrators argue, however, that these hourly workers are “at will” employees and have no particular right to work.
The workers and their supporters—some 15 people, including parks department staff, employees from other city departments, Service Employee International Union 1021 officials and parents of children in the program—attended the commission meeting.
Lisa Hesselgesser, a city library worker and union shop steward, addressed the commission. “It’s a flagrant disregard of people whose children are in the program,” she said. “It’s not just happening to workers—it’s happening to the kids.”
After hearing speakers during the
public-comment period, Scott Ferris, commission secretary and youth and recreation services manager in the parks department, responded to Commissioner Joe Gross, who had asked for an explanation: “In large part, it’s a personnel issue and I can’t comment,” Ferris said. “We have done some reorganization at James Kenney. Seven staff members are no longer receiving hours.”
The city and union interpret their Memorandum of Understanding with the hourly workers differently, with the union arguing that hourly employees have seniority rights, and the city saying they do not.
Some hourly employees who had worked less time with the city than those who received no hours were rehired for the fall program. “They offered jobs to two people who had just worked for the summer,” SEIU 1021 Field Team Supervisor Andre Spearman told the Daily Planet, in an interview in the hallway outside the commission meeting.
Spearman argued further that the city ought to have met with the union before denying the workers hours, but city officials say no such meeting is necessary, given the hourly employees’ “at will”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna said that only “career” employees—those working 20-to-30 hours during the year and 40 hours during the summer—are protected by seniority requirements.
“Hourly employees work on call as needed,” Caronna said. After working 520 hours, they get some paid time off. “Hourly employees are hourly employees. They are people who fill in for the needs of the program in recreation, sports, tutoring. They are hourly at will. They do not have seniority rights.”
Caronna went on to say that picking the people “most effective for the program is at the discretion of management.”
SEIU officials, however, argue that the agreement between the union and workers does not specifically reference “at will” employment.
In a Thursday morning e-mail to the Planet, Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Director William Rogers defended the decision not to offer the hours. With new supervisory staff, the adult to child ratio in the inclusionary program is more than one staff member for every two children and “is consistent with the ratio we have had in the past,” he said, noting that in the regular program, attendance has “decreased dramatically,” requiring a smaller staff.
James Wells, president of the part-time staff union and part time “career” employee at James Kenney, argued to the contrary. In an interview outside the Parks Commission meeting, he told the Planet that he’s found himself in the position of pushing two wheelchairs at once and has not been able to find a second staffer to help move a physically disabled student out of his wheelchair for toileting purposes.
Rogers characterized Wells’ description as a “misrepresentation.” “At no time do we require one staff member to push two wheelchairs,” he wrote.
Anthony Jacob attended the Monday night meeting out of concern for the workers and for his 10-year-old autistic son, who attends the inclusionary program.
“Staff is there with my kid while I’m at people being cut back, I’m concerned for the welfare of my kid.”
Rogers said in his e-mail that new senior staff enhances the quality of the program. “Instead of just watching the kids, we are providing new opportunities for learning and socialization,” he wrote.
Responding in a phone call to the Planet, Wells pointed to various activities planned and modified for disabled children by hourly staff, including an Amtrak train trip to Sacramento that gave the disabled children and many of their able-bodied peers an experience none had previously had.
The workers say the elimination of hours was bad enough, but even worse was the way the long-term workers were advised their services were no longer needed. The two-sentence letter signed August 17 by Scott Ferris said that staffing needs had changed for the 2007-2008 year. “As a result, we do not anticipate scheduling you for hours between September 2007 and June 2008,” the letter said.
Rogers responded to the criticism, writing: “A letter went to staff who were not going to be scheduled as professional courtesy.”
Caronna was more conciliatory: “It certainly seems that these people were caught off guard,” she said. “Better communication would not have hurt the situation.”