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Highest-paid employee makes $14.05 an hour after 18 years in district, nearly 50 people show up in support of district custodians

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Joseph Gale Elementary School teacher Diana Rodriguez Smith asks the Forest Grove School Board to push Sodexo to pay higher wages to its custodians.Forest Grove School Board members listened Monday night as district custodians asked them to push Sodexo for higher wages and more affordable health insurance.

"We are paid and treated like second-class citizens," said Michael Parra, who's been a custodian with the district for 15 years and said he makes "barely" more than minimum wage. "Sodexo has ignored us for too long. That's why we're coming to you."

The Forest Grove School District contracts with France-based Sodexo for custodial services. About 77 percent of FGSD custodians live in Forest Grove and Cornelius.

The average hourly wage for a beginning custodian in Portland's surrounding cities is $13.89, according to information compiled by the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA). Employees at the high end of that pay scale earn $17.91.

The average wage of all Forest Grove School District custodians — which includes new and long-time employees — is $11.05. The highest paid employee, who's been with the district 18 years, makes $14.05 an hour.

In addition, custodians have to pay $80 a week for their health insurance — and more to cover their families, according to OSEA organizer Lesly Munoz. That's a huge amount for employees making minimum wage, she said. "Only a handful of people take advantage of the insurance because it's so expensive," said Munoz. "It's outrageous."

The school board voted unanimously at Monday's meeting to continue to contract with Sodexo. The contract does not end until June 30, 2019, according to Ilean Clute, district business manager.

The custodial contract the board approved included a total $35,000 increase, which will cover the increase in Oregon's minimum wage next year.

OSEA is currently in negotiations with Sodexo.

OSEA Field Representative Teri Staudinger said she presented average Portland-area wages to Sodexo during contract negotiations but they "weren't interested." She did say, however, that FGSD custodians have received small raises every year for the last four years. Newly hired custodians make minimum wage. 

A Harvey Clarke Elementary School first-grader testified in front of the school board Monday and told the members the janitor at his school is "really nice" and "works hard." He asked the board to "please make sure he gets the money he deserves."

Neil Armstrong Middle School teacher — and Forest Grove City Councilor — Malynda Wenzl also submitted a statement in support of better custodian wages. When Wenzl asks students in her suicide prevention lesson if they have someone they can talk to, eight out of 10 say they could speak with the NAMS custodian.

"We pride ourselves on being an equitable district, but we're not," said Joseph Gale Elementary School teacher Diana Rodriguez Smith, calling the wages "oppressive."

Staudinger said she'd like the school board demand Sodexo "pay competitive wages" and make custodians classified staff members — district employees who are not teachers or administrators.

Munoz and Hugo Contreras, OSEA chapter president, said Sodexo leaders have "been hard on" custodians since they asked for higher wages, nitpicking and making new rules. For example, custodians were recently instructed not to carry cell phones. But Munoz considers having a cell phone a safety issue, especially for women working at night, sometimes outside when they need to take out trash and perform other duties. "It's not like they're talking on the phone all the time," she said.

The custodians are pretty happy with the work they do, Munoz said, but they "just can't get ahead."

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