TUCSON, Ariz. — They’re considered the backbone of every school: classified workers. That's the non-teaching staff who keep schools clean, students safe and fed, and campuses running smoothly. These professionals even provide much needed support for teachers, students, and families.
"They’re out there working very quietly. There aren’t enough of them," said Margaret Chaney, president of the Tucson Education Association.
Now, these support staffers are leaving, temporarily, in record numbers.
One worker, who asked to remain anonymous, is one of more than one hundred to take an unpaid leave of absence.
“I love what I do. I love where I work. It was a difficult decision for me,” the worker said.
The person made that difficult decision to protect their at-risk family from catching COVID-19.
"And it put me into a rock and hard place to know that I will be losing my income,” the worker said.
The spike in leaves of absence this year is substantial.
District documents obtained by KGUN 9 show more than 130 workers have taken a leave of absence since January. That's triple the average number over the last five years.
The biggest jump came in November. The same month the district had voted to start hybrid learning.
41 classified workers took a leave of absence in November 2020. In the previous five Novembers an average of five workers took leaves of absence. So, why are they stepping away?
TEA president Margaret Chaney said some workers, like teaching assistants, feel they aren't valued.
"I know a couple of T.A.s that are in their 60’s who have health conditions, but they’re showing up for work every day," Chaney said.
Many classified workers have been working on campuses since August, even while other employees and students work from home. Some of those support workers are also being told to do jobs they weren't hired to do.
“We have monitors that are acting as Proctors and I think that they’re doing a good job and they’re trying to help teach these children, but they’re monitors," said Tucson Education Association Vice President Audrey Cunneely.
Cunneely has served as a health assistant for 20 years and now she's acting as a voice for classified workers.
"We are often thought of as an afterthought, that you know our lives are worthless or we’re expendable," Cunneely said. "Doesn’t make anyone feel good. If we’re the ones on the front line shouldn’t we be the first thought?"
Many of those workers are paid an hourly rate near minimum wage.
Chaney said a bonus or hazard pay could go a long way to making support workers feel valued by the district.
"Seems like we should be able to offer them something more, just to say hey not only thank you for working so hard, but also thank you for coming to the rescue of these students and these parents and our community," Chaney said.
Chaney and Cunneely say they understand the district is in a tough financial positions.
Students are leaving the district in records numbers, putting a dent in schools’ budgets.
But Cunneely said administrators received bonuses in August. District records back up her claim, and show that administrators received $8,000 each and the Superintendent received $20,000. Some classified workers feel slighted.
"Yes, yes, we do. Not that I’m saying that they don’t deserve it because I know they work hard," Cunneely said.
Chaney and Cunneely said, it's not just about the money.
"I talked to several classified folk and their major issue has been, they say, it’s a lack of respect," Chaney said.
"It’s a lack of respect and a feeling of your life isn’t worth as much as other people’s, which is a hard pill to swallow," said Cunneely.
"I feel like they were looking out for their own best interests and not for the employees," said the unnamed worker. "They weren’t willing to even entertain the idea of offering working from home. ”
"I know that they’re grateful that they’re working. We just don’t want to take advantage of them," Cunneely said. "You know, respect doesn’t cost anything."
When asked if she expects more leaves of absence from support workers Cunneely said she does. How many?
"Well it depends on whether or not they’re asking everybody to come back to school," she said.
The district voted to remain in remote mode until at least January.