Peralta Colleges’ reliance on temporary part-time workers under scrutiny

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When a union representative raised questions at the Peralta Colleges Board Meeting last month about the community college district’s use of temporary employees, no one on the board responded.

“There’s no excuse for workers who have been at their jobs for up to two decades to be considered ‘temporary,’” Richard Thoele, a representative from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said during public comment. “This is a priority for our union.”

Although the board approved 30 short-term contracts that evening, Thoele and others refuse to let the issue die and are actively investigating the practice of using such a designation for employees who have been there for years.  The contracts, labor advocates say, are a cheap and agile option for employers but unfair to workers. Temporary employees often receive less pay than full-time employees and no benefits.

Thoele, president of the SEIU’s chapter for the Peralta Colleges—representing hundreds of workers—has made the district’s reliance on temporary part-time hiring a priority.

According to past board meeting agendas, Peralta has already hired 285 temporary workers in 2018. Many have had multiple contracts with Peralta over the last year. These workers are spread across the four campuses: Berkeley City College, College of Alameda, Laney College and Merritt College.

Peralta Colleges Interim Vice Chancellor for Human Resources and Employee Relations Chanelle Whittaker has not responded to requests for comment.

Most temporary employees contacted after the meeting were unwilling to speak openly about their situation, citing worries about their job security. One Laney College administrator whose short-term contract was renewed at the meeting said that she felt she could not speak to the press without permission from her boss. This was the fourth time her contract was renewed in the last 14 months. She has never had the opportunity to move into a more permanent position.

Although the board failed to address the issue during the open session of the meeting, some members of the community are looking for answers. In an interview following the board meeting, Blake Johnson, a tenured faculty member at Laney, said he has been looking closely at the Peralta budget. “Our expenditures for classified staff have been largely flat over the last five years which means that even though we’ve been employing more people overall—it has been in these part time and temporary capacities—more easily exploited forms of labor,” Johnson said.

The Peralta Colleges are not alone in taking advantage of temporary staff. In December, 2017, City of Oakland employees—members of the same SEIU Local 1021—went on strike to protest the city’s use of temporary-part-time employees. The city and union reached an agreement that would improve benefits and wages for these workers, though Oakland continues to rely on them.

Cecille Isidro, communications coordinator for Union Local 1021, has been following the situation at Peralta and said she would like to see the temporary workers get the appropriate employment designations.  “Just like our members in the city of Oakland, we think the best path forward is to make sure we have full time jobs with benefits instead of this misclassification,” she said. “We are aware of the situation with workers considered part time even though they’ve been there up to 18 years in some cases.”

In his remarks at the board meeting, Thoele said that he has been working actively” with people in human resources at Peralta and wants to work more closely with the college administration on the issue.

Thoele has the California Education Code on his side. According to section 88003 governing community college hiring, a “short-term employee” contract “shall not extend beyond 75 percent of a school year.” Yet over the last year Peralta has employed over 200 people in short-term contracts that—when combined—span more than 75 percent of the school year, according to Peralta’s board meeting agendas from October, 2017 through September, 2018.

After the meeting, board member Julina Bonilla said that Peralta needs to address temporary hiring practices, though she had voted to extend the contracts for 10 previously employed temporary workers and approved an additional 20 contracts with no discussion.

“I think it has been an issue for quite some time,” she said, “and an acknowledged issue,”—although no one other than Thoele had acknowledged it publicly all night.

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