RANDALL BENTON / rbenton@sacbee.com

Jordan Adams, 22, will soon lose his job at CalSTRS. "It feels so spiteful. I really don't want to be a part of that," he said.

California student assistants get the ax as part of union pay-cut deal

Published: Monday, Jul. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 23, 2012 - 10:55 am

California's ongoing state budget crisis has claimed another victim: student state workers. In a few weeks the state will ax hundreds of their jobs – just as the school year gets under way.

Meanwhile, the state's university systems have hiked tuition and will probably do it again if voters reject Gov. Jerry Brown's tax proposal on November's ballot.

And with job prospects for young adults more scarce than for other age groups, students such as Sacramento State junior Amber Amey aren't sure what they'll do.

"I don't really have a plan yet, because we were just informed about this," Amey said last week during a break from her job in California State Teachers' Retirement System's call center. "It stinks."

Amey's post and those of about 1,600 state student assistants will soon be the collateral damage of a labor deal struck last month to help close a $15.7 billion budget deficit.

Brown and the state's largest public employees union, Service Employees International Union Local 1000, agreed the 95,000 state workers it represents would take 12 unpaid days off through next June 30 in exchange for, among other things, purging the state payroll of student assistants as of Sept. 1.

Student assistants generally work part-time schedules, make less than permanent workers and get no benefits. They perform a range of duties, from answering phones to gathering scientific samples in the field.

The state paid them a total of $13.4 million last year, or about 9 cents of every $1,000 spent on employee wages, according to a Bee review of payroll data from the state controller's office. Their average annual pay: $8,500.

Still, state student-assistant jobs are an easy target in tight budget times. They're not covered by union agreements, receive no benefits and have no protections. Former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger axed about 2,000 students during the 2008 budget crisis.

Eliminating student jobs was important for Local 1000 leaders who needed something to sweeten the bitter taste of the furlough concession bargained with Brown.

SEIU Local 1000 leaders didn't respond to several requests for comments for this story. However, the union has said it is unreasonable to ask workers to take a pay cut while keeping students in jobs that union members can perform.

The SEIU deal has soured 22-year-old CalSTRS student assistant Jordan Adams on state service. He said he had planned to graduate from California State University, Sacramento, with a degree in finance, go to law school and apply with the state after graduating.

Not now.

"To be frank, the politics are poisonous," Adams said. "It feels so spiteful. I really don't want to be a part of that."

Dmetri Black, a student assistant who will lose her Department of Industrial Relations job, said she still intends to apply for a full-time state position when she finishes school at Laney College in Oakland."But I have to tell you that after this," Black said, "I'm not looking forward to paying union dues to SEIU."

It's "unfortunate" that the state is axing its student corps, said Dave Gilb, former head of the state's personnel department. He tells the story of a young staff member a few years ago who sat in on a planning meeting about a series of employee training sessions and tests.

After listening to Gilb talk about the logistical hurdles to workers' participation, the student suggested he consider putting the curriculum and tests online – and she knew how to do it.

"It's my experience that these young students bring a lot of energy and new ideas that can help make government work better," Gilb said. "They give the state a lot of bang for the buck."

State workers who depend on student helpers aren't happy to lose them, either.

Earlier this month, David Miller, president of the state scientists' union, sent a letter to Brown's human resources chief protesting student job cuts negotiated with SEIU that would affect his members.

"State scientific and engineering programs depend on student assistants and interns to pick up a number of less complex tasks, saving technical staff resources," Miller wrote in the July 12 letter to human resources Director Julie Chapman. "At the same time, many student assistants with scientific and engineering backgrounds wind up qualifying for civil service exams and are eventually hired to full time positions in our programs."

In a telephone interview last week, Miller repeated those concerns. He called the student job cuts "penny-wise and pound-foolish" and suggested that Brown had other options.

"For what we spend on political appointees, we could hire armies of students," Miller said. "The governor has the power to address that overnight."

When the state lets them go next month, many of the students will confront rising tuition and falling employment prospects.

Tuition and fees at California's two public college systems have more than tripled in the last decade as state funding has dwindled.

Earlier this year, the California State University system increased tuition by 9 percent. The University of California last week hiked professional degree program fees by up to 35 percent. At the same time, UC regents froze undergraduate tuition, assuming that voters will approve Brown's tax measure.

Meanwhile, California's unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds in June was 18.1 percent, compared with 10.7 percent for all age groups.

Amey, the CalSTRS call center worker, knows that jobs are hard to find, particularly jobs such as the one she's losing that allow students to arrange work time around school schedules.

"I'm lucky that I still live at home with my mom," Amey said. "She says she's going to try to help me as best she can. And if I happen to find a little part-time job, I'll do that."

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