Monday, June 27, 2011

With each UC cut, low-wage workers pushed closer to margins

Repost from 6/25/11 Santa Cruz Sentinel:

SANTA CRUZ - As UC Santa Cruz has tried to stay true to its mission of education and research by targeting budget cuts away from academic areas as much as possible, the areas that have taken the brunt of the cuts house some of the university's lowest paid workers.

The custodians, maintenance workers, bus drivers and cooks on campus often work more than one job to support their families, and, when cuts are enacted, they are pushed closer toward the line that separates making ends meet from not knowing where rent money will come from on the first of the month.

"After years of reductions in state support, we've gotten to the point where every corner of the campus has been impacted by these cuts," UCSC spokesman Jim Burns said. "It's also true that units farther from the classroom have been particularly hard hit - not because the campus doesn't value those areas and the people working in them. But because we have tried to the extent possible to reduce cuts to the academic areas in an effort to protect student access to the courses they need."

The University of California has reopened its contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, which represents 20,000 UC employees, including about 650 at UCSC, seeking various concessions that reduce worker take-home pay.

During the past three years of budget cuts, UC has sought similar concessions from all labor groups, but the reduction in pay can have a greater impact on those closest to the margins.

Health care in particular is a touchy issue with the workers, because the nature of their work demands repetitive physical labor and can lead to injuries.

Rosario Cortez, a custodian at UCSC for the past 21 years, already has had one knee operation, and she fears the other knee will need surgery soon.

"A lot of us are in persistent pain while we work," said Cortez, 50. "It can be very hard. My health care recently went up from $30 to $90 (a month). We have the option to shift to a cheaper plan, but I was worried about the coverage and not getting what I need."

During her two decades at UCSC, Cortez has held several second jobs, including other custodial positions and a job at a bread factory. Currently she works five days a week at UCSC, eight hours a day, where she earns about $2,200 a month after taxes, then makes and sells tamales on the weekends for extra income.
Cortez's sentiments were echoed by Ernesto Encinas, a cook at UCSC who cares for his 86-year-old mother and 14-year-old son.

"Everyone I know has a second job," Encinas said. "There is no rest with the wages we make here. You can't make ends meet with just the one job with the way cost of living keeps rising. Any little change in our income can be devastating."

Jim Dunne, director of UCSC's physical plants department, which covers campus maintenance and custodial work among other duties, said his budget has been cut 26 percent and he has lost 50 full-time employees, about 15 percent of his workforce, since 2008.

In interviews, and at a May rally organized by the union, custodians complained that increased demands from the loss of workers have put an unfair burden on them. Dunne said while the custodians have been asked to clean more areas in a single shift in some circumstances, the depth of cleaning has been reduced and other tasks have been eliminated to maintain a similar workload to what was required prior to the budget reductions.

"I have heard [the complaints]," Dunne said. "We often only have a few months to implement changes and rework how we do things. We are making a lot of effort to communicate to custodians what that redesign is, but adjustment takes time. It is a difficult situation for both sides. Custodians take a lot of pride in their work. When you tell them to clean something less, that's hard for them."

Cortez said UCSC used to be a great place to work, but that working conditions have declined in the past few years as cuts have been made.She is a single mother with three kids, two in college. She tries to help them financially, but said she often has trouble making her own rent. "I don't want to see them working like I do," she said. "I want to see them go to school and do better."

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