Laid-off school-security officers in no-pay limbo

Posted: September 09, 2011

GERALD ROGERS is still reeling from the loss of his job as a per-diem school security officer.

But what has made matters worse, he said, is the fact that he can't collect unemployment because of a letter the district gave him that says he could be brought back at any time.

But with a roughly $35 million budget gap, and threats of more cuts to jobs and programs, district officials say they have no immediate plans to call back any of the 190 officers laid off last month.

"It's not our fault you can't hire us," Rogers said referring to the district. "What are we supposed to do in the meantime? I can't pay my rent. I have to eat."

At the end of June, officials sent all 250 of the district's per-diem officers letters of "reasonable assurance," leaving open a chance they might be rehired.

But if officers did not receive written notices asking them to return by the end of August, that means they're "laid off unless notified otherwise," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard. Only 60 people got such notices, he said, adding that the district saved about $3 million from the cuts.

School police union president Michael Lodise said officials then denied the remaining officers' requests for layoff notices and have unjustly kept them on the payroll as active employees.

"If they were active, they should be getting a check," he said, "If you know you're not going to bring them back, why can't they collect unemployment?"

"They just want to dangle us by a string," said Darren Friend, a per-diem officer assigned to West Philadelphia High School.

Gallard said that the decision to grant unemployment lies with the state Department of Labor and is based on an employee's record. To reach a decision, a claims examiner must gather information from both the employer and employee, said Labor Department spokesman Christopher Manlove. He added that an employee is eligible for benefits if he is not likely to return to the job.

Lodise - who doesn't represent the officers but negotiates on their behalf - described their situation as "sad."

"We try in every contract talk to do everything we can for them," he said. "We don't have any control over it."

For example, to receive health benefits and a boost to their current pay, the officers have to work in one school for at least 60 days, and then work at that school or another one for 30 more days.

Benefits kick in after the officer reaches the 90-day mark - as long as he doesn't miss a day - and only last until the end of the current school year.

Rogers, 54, who was last assigned to the Performance Learning Center, an alternative school in Southwest Philadelphia, said the whole setup is wrong.

"They don't care about us," he said. "But we do just as much work as the full-time police officers."

Still, he said he reported for work even after he hurt his back while breaking up a fight at Overbrook High School last June.

"That's the kind of worker I am," he said. "I didn't like missing any days."

He added: "We're human, too. We live, we breathe, we hurt. We just want to be treated fairly."

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