L.A. Unified agrees to pay low-wage workers $15 an hour

Bus Driver Sandra Lee, a union officer, speaks in support of a pact that will provide low-wage school workers $15 an hour in two years. Behind her are school board President Richard Vladovic and board member Monica Ratliff.
(Howard Blume / Los Angeles Times)

Low-wage workers in the nation’s second-largest school system have won a minimum-wage pay increase to $15 an hour.

The contract agreement, approved unanimously Tuesday by the Board of Education, will nearly double the wages of some Los Angeles Unified School District workers after two years.

The pact was one of several approved by the school board, leaving the teachers union as the only major labor group that has not yet come to terms. With the exception of the $15 hourly wage stipulation, most of the contracts followed a similar pattern: a pay increase of about 6.5% over three years, sometimes with a one-time bonus of about 2%.

Other notable elements in the contracts include a bonus for principals with strong performance evaluations, said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.

The $15-an-hour deal affects workers with Local 99 of Service Employees International, which represents about 33,000 custodians, cafeteria workers, teaching assistants, bus drivers and security aides -- many of whom are also district parents. About half make less than $15,000 a year; more than half have been earning less than $15 an hour, according to the union. Many workers saw their hours reduced during the recent recession.


“This is a wonderful day,” said campus aide Andre Smith. “We’ve had a struggle for the past years, but today is the good day -- to finally have our voices heard.”

Smith has worked at Fremont High for 19 years and earns $15.12 an hour for a full-time position. The starting salary for her position is $12.11 an hour, said the union; many aides work part time.

Because Smith is already making more than the minimum, his wage will rise 2% for the coming school year, 2% for the year that follows and 2.5% after that. The union had been demanding a 15% increase for its higher-wage workers.

“What we did was very historic,” said bus driver Sandra Lee, a union vice president. “We’ve spearheaded what other districts and companies can do.”

The $15-an-hour movement has gained a foothold in some parts of the country, including in some contracts negotiated at Los Angeles International Airport. In contrast, the state minimum wage rose to $9 an hour Tuesday.

“All workers should be getting this minimum wage,” said Board of Education member Bennett Kayser. “It shouldn’t stop here at L.A. Unified.”

Deasy called the deal “philosophically easy, financially difficult.” He added: “We still have a lot of belt-tightening to do down the road to honor these agreements.”

The raise phases in over three years. As of Tuesday, the minimum rose to $11 an hour. The rate is $13 next year before hitting $15 on July 1, 2016.

The Local 99 pact has other notable elements. Aides who work with disabled students will get more paid hours. About 500 workers will take part in a trial of a new, more detailed evaluation system, which will include the employee’s input. And a short-term labor-management committee will meet over such issues as restoring jobs and hours and reducing the amount of contracting with outside, nonunion companies, said Courtni Pugh, executive director of Local 99.

Some low-wage district employees are not affected by this agreement, but could receive similar terms when their union finishes its negotiations.

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