I’d gamble my teacher paycheck that every woman alive has experienced a feeling of dread walking into a public bathroom. Will it be clean? Will it be safe? Will the door lock? Will there be enough paper? The anxiety is enough to give a woman a stomachache.
I’m proud to live in Santa Monica, however, where women – and men – can enjoy clean and safe public bathrooms at the beach – thanks in large part to 10 beach bathroom workers – all people of color – some of whom say they have toiled full-time on the job for anywhere from five to 13 years – one reportedly as long as 28 years (though perhaps not consecutively) – as virtual second class citizens.
The City has termed them “as needed” workers, even though there’s no “as” about it, for these workers – eight men, two women – who scrub our toilets, hose down our walkways, sort our litter, and clean our lifeguard stations work full-time, five days and 40 hours a week, with no holidays, no sick pay, no vacation – and with no health care until a few days ago when the City was required to provide health benefits under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Six months ago, City Management’s plan was to outsource these workers’ jobs to a private contractor in a timely move that would have allowed the City to continue to avoid paying health benefits.
We – the community – stopped that effort at privatization when workers showed up en masse at City Hall to protest. Lawmaker Kevin McKeown provided visionary leadership in successfully urging the council to instruct City Staff to study the costs/benefits of outsourcing and “as needed” labor and return with an in depth report.
It was time to take a new direction.
This Tuesday, Jan. 13, the City Council will discuss that report and, in all probability, approve City Management’s recommendation to curtail some of the private contracting (bus repair, HVAC) and to convert some of the “as needed” positions into permanent full time jobs. But City Management wants to stop just short of fully remedying the injustice these 10 beach workers have experienced over their de facto long term full-time tenure.
It’s time to make the beach bathroom workers whole. Hire them now as permanent workers. Treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve; provide them with the permanent status label and protection that accompanies such status. Give them the due process rights the City has long denied, so that they can enjoy job security and greater promotional opportunities, and not go to bed at night wondering if they’ll be able to feed their children tomorrow.
Instead, City Management is recommending the beach bathroom positions become permanent, but not the workers themselves – and that others be allowed to take these jobs, provided they score higher on a Civil Service test the City proposes to open to hundreds of applicants, most likely strangers in town.
The City Council can – and should – reject City Management’s recommendation to make these workers jump through hoops to take tests some have already passed multiple times – in order to become permanent – or in order to be told something to the effect of, “Sorry, you didn’t score as high as the next guy” – though we’ll try our best to figure out a remedy to make you feel better.”
The City’s Civil Service rules provide for an exception to imposing a competitive examination. Acting on a recommendation from the City Manager, Human Resource Director, and the Director of Public Works, our city’s five-member Personnel Board can vote to hire the Beach 10 as permanent beach bathroom workers. This is what the City Council should do – use the exception written into the Civil Service rules for a reason to carve a narrow, precise exception that need not recur as long as the City maintains the genuine definitions of “as-needed” (seasonal, limited) and other non-permanent workers.
Understandably, City Management is sincerely concerned about setting a bad precedent by granting an exception to Civil Service testing originally designed to thwart political patronage. Clearly, we should safeguard a fair and equitable hiring process but that doesn’t mean we should add insult to injury by saying, “You were good enough to clean our bathrooms on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and five days a week for years – but not now that we’re going to bestow benefits and rights.”
In the perfect world, the Beach 10 would collect thousands of dollars in back pay for benefits never received while employed in de facto permanent status, and be given seniority for time on the job.
In a near-perfect world, the Human Resources Department – no matter how honorable the intention – would not waste time with unnecessary testing of people who have already earned A’s on the real test – performance on the job – and would not waste taxpayer dollars training new workers to do what the Beach 10 already know how to do well.
Flush, scrub, hose, scrub, sort, scrub, haul, scrub.
The City Staff report says it takes four to five months on average to recruit and train a new employee. I shudder to think what our bathrooms might look like in the interim, as spring and summer approach and crowds converge on a town dependent on tourism.
Ah, that anxious feeling returns.
Please join the Santa Monica Beach workers at the Jan. 13 City Council meeting as they share their stories and respond to the staff report on outsourcing and “as needed” labor – employment that should not be used to undermine full-time employment.
In 2007 the City passed a law institutionalizing indefinite hiring of “as needed” – stating these workers were not entitled to any benefits except state or federal retirement.
This “as needed” law needs a face-lift or a kick to the curb; it at least must be carefully confined to the intermittent and “stopgap” purposes for which the City enacted it, to avoid the exploitation encountered by the Beach 10.
The Beach Maintenance Workers, organized by the Industrial Workers of the World, are fighting for their jobs, but also for worker protection for all full-time “as needed” workers in Santa Monica.
Our beaches are first rate.
Our beach bathrooms are first rate, too.
Let’s treat the men and women who clean them as first rate.
To join the campaign to make beach bathroom workers permanent, email [email protected]
Ocean Park Neighborhood