Los Angeles Unified School District workers strike for higher wages: 'You could make way more working at Costco or Panda Express'
Workers at the second-largest school district in the country went on strike this week.
Service workers with LAUSD are demanding higher wages, citing poverty-level pay in expensive LA county.
Picketers told Insider that they feel undervalued and frustrated.
Tens of thousands of union workers with the Los Angeles Unified School District walked out on Tuesday following weeks of tense negotiations over meager wages among many of the district's lowest-paid workers.
Classes were canceled at LAUSD's more than 1,000 public schools on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, leaving half a million students out of school in the nation's second-largest school district.
Hundreds of district employees and their supporters braved the rare spring rain in Los Angeles on both Tuesday and Wednesday to gather with searing signs and critical chants outside LAUSD headquarters in downtown LA. Demonstrators also picketed outside individual schools and bus yards.
The strike culminated this month after weeks of talks between the district and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99 and United Teachers Los Angeles. The service employees union is fighting for higher wages, with members citing poverty-level pay and limited working hours amid rising inflation and a high cost of living in LA county.
Karla Berruz, a special education assistant who has worked in the district for 25 years, told Insider she's worried about the future of education should the union not secure a win.
"I don't think many people will want these jobs in the future because you could make way more than what we make working at Costco or working at Panda Express," Berruz said. "And we really stay because we really love our students and we really do care about the education that they get."
Berruz, who said the last raise she received was eight cents an hour, told Insider that she and her colleagues feel constantly undervalued by their administrations.
Another special education assistant who was picketing on Tuesday, Edda Berruz, said she and her co-workers were told they could only use one bathroom on campus because the district didn't have the custodial staff to keep multiple restrooms open.
"As special ed assistants and as custodians and cafeteria workers, we are considered the less of the less in this community," Karla Berruz said.
SEIU Local 99 is demanding a 30% raise, while teachers want a 20% pay increase over two years.
United Teachers Los Angeles' wage dispute is a separate fight from the current strike, but several teachers were out protesting in support of their district co-workers on Tuesday.
Julia Jones, a kindergarten teacher, told Insider that LAUSD educators were standing alongside service workers in order to help them secure their desired contract so that all the students could be best supported.
"Without their work, we can't do our work," Jones said of the district service workers. "They feed our children, they support their instruction, behavior, transportation. And they're the lifeblood of our communities, and they deserve a living wage."
The district has offered what it called a "historic" wage increase
Dressed in union purple and red, demonstrators on Tuesday carried signs castigating LAUSD Superintendent Albert M. Carvalho, who said the strike would cause unnecessary harm to students.
Carvalho has continued to defend the district's stance, saying they are offering a "historic" wage increase of more than 20% over a multiyear period, as well as a 3% bonus for workers who have been at the district since the 2020-2021 school year, expanded hours, more full time roles, and better healthcare eligibility, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"We remain ready to return to negotiations with SEUI Local 99 so we can provide an equitable contract to our hardworking employees and get our students back in classrooms," Carvalho tweeted on Tuesday. "This offer addresses the needs and concerns from the union, while also remaining fiscally responsible and keeping the District in a financially stable position."
The service workers union represents many of the lowest-paid employees in the district including bus drivers, special education assistants, food workers, custodians, teacher aides, and security aides. SEIU Local 99 said that its workers make an average of $25,000 a year, including both part-time and full-time employees.
The teacher's union encouraged its members, which also include nurses, counselors, librarians, and therapists, to support the current strike.
Jacqueline Siquina, a first grade teacher with the district, told Insider she was picketing in support of her teacher's assistants, as well as her fellow teachers, who are waging their own battle for a pay increase.
"I love being a teacher, but I can't afford to stay in the classroom," she said.
Several picketers on Tuesday expressed frustration and anger, describing the need to strike as unfair.
"I love my job. I want it to be better for the kids," said Eric Amaya, a special education paraprofessional. "But I also want it to be better for the people who come after me."
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