2021 | Schools

Hazard pay is ‘sticking point’ in MCPS support staff union negotiations

SEIU president says district being ‘disrespectful’

The president of the union that represents Montgomery County Public Schools’ service workers said the district has been “disrespectful” at times in negotiating facets of its reopening plan.

SEIU Local 500 joins the district’s other employee unions — one representing teachers and the other representing administrators — in publicly expressing frustrations and concerns about MCPS’ reopening plan, set to start in a little more than a week.

In an interview with Bethesda Beat this week, SEIU President Pia Morrison said the union’s impact bargaining negotiations — which detail working conditions for employees when buildings reopen — are continuing.

A lingering debate, she said, is about providing hazard pay, which is extra compensation for employees who work closely with the public and could be at greater risk for getting COVID-19.

The issue is being negotiated jointly with the two other unions.

SEIU represents about 7,000 MCPS employees, many of whom have been working on site or in different roles throughout the pandemic.

Morrison pointed to county employees who have received hazard pay for similar work. She said she “does not begrudge them for that,” but it’s unfair to expect MCPS employees to work in-person without similar accommodations.

“When you flip the coin and look at school system workers who’ve also been working, and are a predominantly female workforce,” Morrison said, “it seems to be OK for them to not receive what they have already earned for the work that they have done for the school system. I feel as if the struggle for me with MCPS leaders right now is they want to nickel and dime our members in a way that feels honestly disrespectful.”

MCPS did not respond to a request for comment as of Saturday night. In previous statements, the school district has said its reopening plan was developed “following months of tremendous collaboration” with employees and community members.

The “fight around compensation” will be a “real sticking point” for the union as it continues negotiations, Morrison said, because workers — like cafeteria employees, bus drivers and building services workers, among others — “deserve to be compensated in a dignified and respectful manner for the sacrifices that they have made.”

Extra hazard pay went to county employees who had to work with the public during the pandemic, such as administering COVID-19 tests or vaccines. The pay began in early April and by mid-January, the county had spent $77.7 million.

County Executive Marc Elrich and three county employee unions agreed this week to end the hazard, or differential, pay.

SEIU, like the teachers union, believes staff members should be vaccinated before the reopening plan begins, Morrison said.

On Tuesday evening, the Montgomery County Education Association announced that its representatives had taken a vote of no confidence in the MCPS reopening plan, officially signifying it “does not support” the plan.

Its resolution, which passed with 96% of representatives voting in favor, says MCPS should not require educators to go back to buildings without being vaccinated.

As of Wednesday, about 4,500 MCPS staff members (roughly 18%) had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

About 52% of the employees vaccinated were support staff, 42% were teachers and 6% were administrators, according to Superintendent Jack Smith.

Vaccines are not yet widely available for educators in Montgomery County. The county’s health department is still prioritizing people older than 75 and essential health care workers, and doesn’t expect to move into the phase that includes school staff members for several weeks.

Some vaccines are available for educators through private providers or at state-operated mass vaccination sites.

“MCPS is refusing to acknowledge that the lack of available vaccines is preventing educators from receiving the protection they need, and exposing them to unnecessary risk of harm in the in-school setting,” MCEA wrote in a statement.

In an interview this week, Smith argued that no federal, state or local health officials have said that school staff members being vaccinated is a prerequisite for reopening buildings.

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that vaccinations should not be required for teachers to go back to classrooms.

On Thursday, Morrison said her “preference would be that everyone who wants a vaccine has access to it and have both of their vaccines, and have time for their bodies to adapt to the vaccine before returning to school.”

But, she said, not being able to do that is not MCPS’ fault.

“I also know we have a governor who is more interested in making a political statement than he seems to care about the health and well-being of essential education workers,” Morrison said, referring to a public push by Gov. Larry Hogan for schools to reopen by March 1, or possibly face legal repercussions. “That, in and of itself, without ensuring that people had access to be safe and healthy in an environment around hundreds of other people, to me, is just reckless and dangerous.”

The union that represents MCPS administrators and principals also raised concerns this week about the impact bargaining process and a lack of communication about the reopening plan.

In a letter to the school board, the union wrote that opportunities to provide feedback and ask questions have been “uncoordinated and limited” and the MCPS administration has not been responsive.

The administrators said in the letter that they learn of many MCPS changes when the public does during school board meetings, forcing them to rebuild their school’s plan.
Union leaders wrote that they are concerned that MCPS cannot “effectively answer important questions regarding staffing” and operations.

“Honesty, transparency, authentic collaboration, and respect is what our members deserve,” the letter said. “We are one MCPS team; it is time that we act like it.”

The teachers union is the only MCPS employee union to take an official stance opposing the reopening plan.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com