Penn-Trafford, support staff union divided over contract terms, fact-finder's recommendations

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Aug. 17—Penn-Trafford School District and a union representing 83 support staffers remain at odds over contract terms after the district rejected recommendations in a fact-finding report.

Wages are among the issues where the two sides differ.

The Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ contends that its members who are charged with assisting disabled students earn as little as $10.35 per hour while the district is experiencing growth. According to state data, enrollment in the district grew in 2020-21, to 3,864 students. That was up from 3,851 in 2017-18, and in two subsequent years, when enrollment saw a moderate dip, but down from 3,909 in 2015-16.

The local bargaining unit, which includes paraprofessionals, custodians, secretaries and teacher aides, voted to accept the July 13 recommendations of neutral fact-finder W. Timothy Barry "in the spirit of compromise but are in their legal right to strike, if deemed necessary," according to a news release SEIU officials distributed at this week's school board meeting.

Superintendent Matthew Harris confirmed that the district rejected the fact-finding recommendations. He said the district has submitted a follow-up offer and, as of Monday, was awaiting a response.

Harris declined to comment further, indicating the district won't negotiate through the media.

"We hope that the district will come up with an offer that honors the work and sacrifice made by all our members, including the custodians who have worked and sacrificed throughout the pandemic to keep the schools clean," said Sam Williamson, director of the SEIU local. "If they do that, then we'll be able to reach a fair settlement."

The previous agreement between the district and the union expired on June 30, 2020. The district requested the fact-finding process after talks between the parties reached an impasse. Barry was appointed by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.

In his fact-finding report, Barry recommended that members of the bargaining unit across the board receive hourly wage increases of: 30 cents, for 2020-21; 40 cents each for 2021-22 and 2022-23; and 45 cents for 2023-24. That matches the district proposal and nearly matches that of the union, which asked for a 45-cent raise for 2022-23.

The union proposed increasing the starting rate for aides, paraprofessionals and personal care assistants to $16.20 per hour. Barry supported the district position of keeping the starting wage at $10.35 while noting both sides had tentatively agreed to an hourly mid-year "catch-up" raise of 50 cents for employees who receive less than the top wage in their classification, currently at $17.25 per hour.

According to Williamson, the greatest sticking point between the sides has been over a similar mid-year hourly raise of 40 cents that has been in effect for custodians and secretaries.

Williamson said the catch-up pay hikes are meant to elevate those employees from the starting wage to the top pay level over 21 years.

While the district proposed eliminating those mid-year increases, Barry recommended keeping them in place but limiting the maximum hourly wage to $20.90 in the first year of the contract, gradually increasing to $22.15 by 2023-24.

Williamson said the district's plan to eliminate the catch-up raises is unfair to the custodians and secretaries and unwise given the current tight labor market.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, or via Twitter .