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[whitespace] Donna Rosenthal
Photograph by George Sakkestad

It's About Time: Foothill College box office manager Donna Rosenthal is a plaintiff in a prepared suit against the college for its treatment of so-called temp workers who have worked for years at the college with no job security and no benefits.

Permanent Pressed

Twenty years on the job? Who you calling a 'temp'?

By Loren Stein

DONNA ROSENTHAL takes great pride in her 20-plus-year tenure at Foothill College. In 1982 she single-handedly created the school's piano labs and subsequently taught there. Five years later she moved to the college's box office and six years after that was promoted to manager, where she made sure the box office ran like a well-oiled machine. She researched and installed the computer software; recruited, hired and trained employees; tracked revenue and publicity efforts; and processed ticket orders. During big shows, she puts in 10-to-14-hour workdays, sometimes seven days a week.

Welcome to Rosenthal's "temp" job, a term that would seem almost humorous 20 years after the fact, except that it means she receives no health insurance, no sick leave, no disability or vacation pay. Rosenthal, who lives and works in Los Altos Hills, says she knows what it feels like to be a second-class citizen.

"They give me nothing. They could call me in one day and let me go immediately," Rosenthal says. "I don't think it's fair to call someone a temporary employee when the college needs this position. The bottom line is, without paying me benefits, they can get it cheap."

When she questioned the dean of fine arts about receiving part-time permanent status and benefits, she says was told she could get fired if she persisted. "I feel a great loyalty to Foothill. I've dropped everything when I'm needed by the college, but I started to feel like I wasn't part of the team, that my loyalty wasn't being returned," she says. "It's very hurtful and very frustrating."

Jabbing Session

Rosenthal is one of eight lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit prepared by Service Employees International Union Local 715 against Foothill-De Anza Community College District charging the district with a pattern of long-term exploitation of its temporary workers and noncompliance with the state education code.

After three years of effort on the issue, organizers of the union (which represents 22,000 workers-- 457 of them in the Foothill-De Anza Community College District) were surprised to learn on March 20, the day before the suit was scheduled to be filed, that the district wanted to settle. Still, they say they have lingering doubts about Chancellor Leo Chavez's willingness to be a good negotiating partner. (Chavez declined to be interviewed for this article.)

With the lawsuit hanging in the balance, Chavez and union activists have been exchanging some sharp jabs. In a letter written last week, the chancellor claimed that he had already reclassified more temp workers than the union had previously requested. He said state law bars him from automatically placing temp employees in permanent positions, and planned salary increases for regular employees would have to be cut if he did. What's more, he said, frequent changes in the union's negotiating representatives had led to "unfortunate delays" in solving the problem.

"We were disappointed to ... receive your letter," shot back union and worker representatives. "Rather than demonstrating true leadership by taking responsibility for the problem, you chose to engage in attacks and excuses. We truly hope that this is not the spirit in which you intend to attempt to negotiate a settlement."

Feeding the Bottom Line

The Foothill-De Anza action has been part of a broad-based effort by the SEIU to win benefits for temp employees who work for cities, counties and other community colleges. In 1999, the union pressured Santa Clara County to convert 300 temp jobs to permanent positions, give limited benefits to remaining temp workers and cap the number of temp employees it could use.

Bolstered by a National Labor Relations Board ruling in 2000 that allows temps to join unions that represent permanent workers at their workplace, SEIU has focused on getting equity and job security for temps. Swelling union ranks also translate into more dues and increased clout at the bargaining table--even more so if increased numbers of union members have permanent jobs.

"The district realizes [temps] are exploitable because they lack knowledge of the law or there's a shortage of permanent positions available," says Javier Rueda, chapter chair for SEIU Local 715 at Foothill-De Anza. "Without having to pay them benefits, the district looks better on the bottom line."

Rueda adds, "The people who create value for the community are devalued themselves."

According to state law, employers can hire workers on a temporary basis for only 195 days (the college district puts the limit at 180), say union representatives. Whereas part-time workers are hired for a specific number of hours per week, temps usually receive a contract for several months, are laid off for one month and then rehired, says former state legislator Bob Campbell, now a consultant for SEIU. As of one year ago, the district said it employed more temps than regular workers, he adds.

Someone Else's Problem

Although the latest front in the battle over temporary workers is being fought at Foothill-De Anza, it's hardly an academic issue. Temporary employment has been the fastest-growing sector of employment in Silicon Valley and the backbone of the high-tech boom, according to San Jose-based Working Partnerships USA.

From 1990 to 1995, the ranks of temp workers grew by 50 percent in Santa Clara County and rose another 48 percent in the next five-year period, says Working Partnerships research associate Sarah Zimmerman. From 1992 to 1999, the number of temp agency offices in the county tripled.

"The bigger you are, the easier it is not to do the right thing," says Tiffany Ente, coordinator of the temporary-work project for Working Partnerships. "There's less accountability and connection to temp workers. Companies say, 'They're not our employees; they're the temp agency's problem.'"

According to the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, in 2000 some 40 percent of workers in Silicon Valley were temporary, part-time or on contract. High-tech firms employed 30,000 long-term temp workers who saved millions for companies by working without benefits, stock options and job-security packages. Temp workers accounted for the largest growth in the business-services sector during the 1990s.

When the boom went bust, temporary workers were fired first and ultimately shed at the same rate as full-time workers, says Zimmerman. Now, as companies restructure and downsize, temp workers are being hired back by high-tech firms at an even greater rate than full-timers. With a bigger pool of unemployed skilled and educated workers, it's easier for companies to find temps who have the right skill set for the job.

What's more, with continuing uncertainty over demand for their products and services, "companies are testing the waters" by hiring more temp employees. "The easiest thing for them to do is hire people back on a temporary basis without any job security or benefits," Zimmerman says. The work assignments are often very difficult, she says, as temps are hired at the last moment to fix problems under tight deadlines and great pressure.

Time for a Change

Meanwhile, at Foothill-De Anza, the pressure has been building for some time. "The past practice of the district is to negotiate a quick fix, but we're expecting a long-term solution," says Rueda of SEIU Local 715.

Just how many workers are illegally classified as temporary employees at Foothill-De Anza is unclear, says Local 715 Secretary Karen Lemes. Of 1,500 temps employed by the district per year, about 450 are on the payroll in any given month, yet the district has been unwilling to share its employment information, she says. After conducting an informal survey of six local community college districts and their reliance on temp workers, Lemes says Foothill-De Anza appears to be the worst offender.

With budget cutbacks and funding uncertainties, relying on temp or short-term employees is a widespread practice at universities and colleges, says SEIU consultant Campbell. "Then they string them along year after year--basically they're 'at-will' employees," he says.

In the state Capitol, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) is sponsoring a bill that would cap at 20 percent the proportion of short-term classified employees for any school or community college district.

As for box office manager Donna Rosenthal, now 62 years old, the time is right for a change. Two years ago, she had to start her own business as a piano teacher to augment her salary at Foothill, working until 8pm each night.

"I didn't hesitate when the union asked me to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit," she says. "Before I had my other job, I would have been terrified. Not now."


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From the March 28-April 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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