San Antonio:
For School Workers, Pay is Pain

Express-News: Metro and State

For school workers, pay is pain
By Lucy Hood
San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted : 09/09/2001

Blanca Mermea, a worker in the Coronado Elementary School cafeteria, offers pizza on the serving line to some hungry youngsters. She earns $5.50 an hour.

Her husband is a painter, but recent rains have kept him at home with their three children, who range in age from 6 to 10.

She is one of close to 10,000 custodians, cafeteria workers and other nonprofessional employees in Bexar County's 16 school systems.

Many of them earn less than the $8.25 living wage championed by labor organizations and grass-roots lobbying groups such as Metro Alliance and Communities Organized for Public Service.

In late August, the San Antonio School District followed a precedent set by City Hall and became the first school system in the area to increase its minimum hourly pay to $8.25. The Harlandale School District came close to the living wage mark by raising its minimum to $8 an hour.

"It would be a lot easier for me if I could get that kind of pay," Mermea said.

But SASD and Harlandale are the only districts in the county to break the $8 barrier. Edgewood's minimum is $5.50 an hour, and the other districts range from a low of $5.30 an hour in the South San Antonio School District to $7.73 an hour at the Randolph School District.
Mermea's annual income at Coronado will be $7,755 for 187 days of work, the duration of a typical school year. In contrast, the same job at an elementary school in the San Antonio School District would amount to $12,342 a year.

These figures fall below the national poverty guidelines for a household of four, which is $17,650, as well as last year's average annual income in Bexar County, which was $30,060.

But the $8.25 living wage is about 10 percent higher than the national norm for kitchen workers. They made an average last year of $7.46 an hour, according to the Current Population Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Schools are not-for-profit, private firms. They have no duty to shareholders," said Barry Hirsch, an economics professor at Trinity University. "Their duty is to the community and voters, and they may be willing to pay higher than competitive wages."

Several local school leaders expressed a willingness to pay $8.25 an hour and added they would work toward that; but they also said budget constraints and their ability to compete with other school systems for qualified employees must be taken into account.

"We don't want to be at the bottom of the heap," said Edgewood's new superintendent, Luis Gonzalez. "The word, to me, is equity. Certainly, we want to maintain equity, because we don't want our valued employees to go elsewhere."

Gonzalez, who has been dividing his time between Edgewood, where he officially starts on Monday, and his old district in Michigan, said he's taken the first step toward addressing the issue by asking for detailed information about the wages and benefits of hourly workers in Edgewood.

But until school boards begin to take action on a living wage, their intentions will mean little to employees struggling to make ends meet on an income that barely surpasses the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.

Since SASD adopted a living wage for its employees on Aug. 20, it has been a topic of discussion among cafeteria workers at Coronado during their lunch break, Mermea said.

"All the girls I work with are all saying the same thing. ... They all make the same amount I do," she said. "Everybody's got kids, children they got to support and stuff. For the work we do, they think we deserve $8.25 an hour."

Mermea is a member of Service Employees International Union Local 100, one of several organizations that have pushed for a living wage in public schools and city governments throughout the state.

In San Antonio, that effort has been led by local labor organizations, COPS and Metro Alliance. While the groups acknowledge that progress was made this year in SASD and Harlandale, they also say there's still a long way to go.

Calling the $5.30 minimum wage paid in the South San school district "obscene," Sister Gabriela Lohan of Metro Alliance said the pressure will now be on other districts to raise their wages.