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Milwaukee Public Schools secretaries win hazard pay as organizing effort continues

Photo credit: Getty.
Milwaukee Public Schools secretaries win hazard pay as organizing effort continues
By Ezra Kane-Salafia ·
Milwaukee Public Schools secretaries win hazard pay as organizing effort continues
Photo credit: Member-provided photo.

When Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) implemented its hazard pay program for front-line workers, there was a significant oversight. Despite working in-person throughout the pandemic, MPS secretaries were left out of the program entirely.

The secretaries didn’t just accept it. They stood together, organized and fought until they received the hazard pay they deserve.

While MPS transitioned to virtual learning for the 2020-2021 school year, there was a lot of in-person work to be done to make that possible. Secretaries across MPS immediately went to work, distributing Chromebooks, textbooks and teaching materials, visiting homes to drop off materials, delivering meals to hungry students, and more.  

“Every day parents were calling, they needed help with the Chromebooks, or needed new ones. They came in and didn’t have masks,” said Patricia Jackson, a secretary at Metcalf School and president of AFSCME Local 1053 (Council 32). “There were parents and families coming in the building because of crisis situations. I was frightened, but I had to go to work every day.”

Beyond just the daily work of making sure remote learning took place as smoothly as possible, the secretaries were a lifeline for families in crisis, an all-too-common situation throughout the pandemic.

“One student came to the door early in the morning escaping an abusive situation and said, ‘I go to school here, I’m a student, I got my mom with me and we’re scared.’ I opened the door and let them in. I took that chance,” said Jackson. “I did what I had to do to help that family.”

Though the secretaries put in a whole year of hard work to make virtual learning possible for the district, students and families, MPS administrators decided that the secretaries were not exposed to the public and weren’t in danger of contracting COVID.

“We applied for it, applied for it, applied for it, and were denied,” said Jackson, referring to hazard pay.

To many of the workers, that was a smack in the face. But it was also galvanizing. After years of slowly declining membership, the fight for hazard pay brought the secretaries together.

The secretaries jumped into action once again, but this time to fight for fair compensation for the front-line work they did. Working with organizers from Council 32, the secretaries put in place a plan to pressure the school board and school leadership to make the right decision.

“We told our stories, what we were doing in those buildings, why were in those buildings, the work we were doing,” Jackson said. “We were denied remote work. We couldn’t stay at home. We had work to do. We had more contact with the public than anybody. We were going to people’s homes, opening the doors, meeting parents in the parking lot. We did a lot of things to help families. And we told the school board that.”

Eventually, after months of school board meetings and hard work, after more than 22 secretaries wrote letters, after a half a dozen of them testified at meetings, the school board changed its position and granted them hazard pay last month.

For most, it was their first time advocating for their rights in the workplace. And it had an immediate effect on the membership.

“When we started, we had less than 50 secretaries in the union. Now, we have more than 90 members. Every day, one or two more would join us,” Jackson said.

Their fight was victorious because they stuck together and stood up for each other, Jackson said.

“We can only be strong together. We have to stick together,” she said.

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