Houston:
HISD Criticized for Outsourcing

HISD criticized for outsourcing
By L.M. SIXEL

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle


In an effort to cut costs, governments on all levels are increasingly turning to private companies.

Instead of using their own employees and paying them the relatively good wages and benefits the public sector is known for, government agencies have, for example, hired private companies to pick up trash and clean the streets.

Many times, private companies can do the job for less. They're specialized and can perhaps run a bigger operation more efficiently. But they also often pay lower wages and don't offer many benefits.

Of course, private businesses have outsourced jobs that are not essential to core business for years. If it's cheaper and works as well to hire a third-party company to collect the trash, that's what they do.

And you can argue that it's better to work as a janitor for a company that specializes in cleaning than it is to work as a janitor for a manufacturer.

The chances for advancement are much greater in the specialty company because there are avenues for promotion. In the manufacturing company, it's harder to get out of the broom closet.

The issue of privatization has popped up at Houston's Cesar Chavez High School, named for the labor hero who fought for farmworkers' rights.

There and at Westside High School, custodians no longer work for the Houston Independent School District. The 36 custodian positions have been outsourced to ServiceMaster Co. That company in turn subcontracted to Aztec Facility Services, which pays the custodians between $6 and $7 an hour.

They get $6 an hour, contends Orell Fitzsimmons, state director of Service Employees International Union Local 100 in Houston.

That's a big drop from the $7.80 an hour that the district's custodians earn.

But perhaps more importantly, the employees who work for the private firm receive none of the school district's benefits, including health insurance, vacation time, holidays and sick leave.

Fiscal prudence

They deserve to earn enough to buy enough food and put a decent roof over their heads, Fitzsimmons said. And they deserve the same health care and holidays as the district's custodians.

Fitzsimmons is worried that the privatization arrangement may spread to other schools in HISD. District officials have indicated that if the arrangement works well, the school district plans to outsource more of the custodial positions, he said.

HISD has to remain fiscally prudent, spokeswoman Heather Browne said. And so far the district has been satisfied with ServiceMaster.

The district would like to offer full benefits across the board, but that's difficult with the rising cost of health care and retirement, Browne said.

She said that the ServiceMaster employees' wages start at $6.50 an hour and that vacuum operators earn upwards of $7.

Burden to taxpayers

While the school district is worried about keeping its costs down, taxpayers also have reason to worry.

Because the custodians and their families who clean Cesar Chavez and Westside no longer have health insurance, they will probably have to find health care through the taxpayer funded Harris County Hospital District.

Everyone in Harris County ends up paying for that health care, said E. Dale Wortham, a board member of the Harris County Hospital District.

Wortham, who is also president of the AFL-CIO of Harris County, said he has tried several times to get other board members to require the hospital district's vendors to offer affordable health care for their own employees.

"If someone does business with the taxpayers, they shouldn't be a burden on us," said Wortham, who emphasized that his opinion was not an official board position.

But he said his idea hasn't been received well by a majority of the board. Board members argue it would make it harder for small businesses to compete, and government shouldn't be in the business of social engineering.

To voice comments, telephone 713-220-2000 and dial in code 1002. Send e-mail to lm.sixel@chron.com.