Custodians struggle with benefit cuts
Jamie Ballard finally paid off one of his two credit cards in May, but he had to start using it again after the Charleston County School District outsourced his job to a private company.
He no longer has health insurance, which means a recent root canal cost him $700 and the crown he needs will be another $1,500. He hasn't seen the bills from his wife's and 1-year-old son's recent trips to the doctor, but he expects those to be costly too.
"I believe in God, and I know he'll take care of me," Ballard said. "I try not to worry, but it's human nature. It's stressful not to know when you're going to have insurance. I know I will have it again, and I know it'll come at the right time. I'm just human and impatient like everyone else."
When the county school board first saw its 2011-12 budget, it faced a projected $28 million shortfall. The board made a number of cost-saving decisions, such as eliminating administrative positions, reducing substitute teacher funds and closing the Sixth Grade Academy campus that helped struggling readers.
It also outsourced the custodians who work in schools.
Some day porters have a greater earning potential now because they can work more days, district officials said. But since the change, some can no longer afford health insurance.
Officials said they have heard from some who are happy with the change. But the handful of workers who have spoken at school board meetings and called The Post and Courier have been dissatisfied, to say the least.
Outsourcing the district's school-based custodians had been on the table for the past three years, but didn't become a reality until this year. The budget situation hadn't been this bad, said Mike Bobby, the district's chief financial and operations officer.
"We worked very hard not to lose people," he said. "I understand how this has to be difficult. It wasn't an easy decision, and it was not made without considering the impact on (employees') lives."
Eighty-six day porters were affected by the change. Two left the district on their own accord, 55 were outsourced to private companies, and 29 stayed on the district's payroll. Anyone with nine or more years of experience could remain a district employee for up to three years.
The total savings was $732,000, which Bobby said would amount to $7.3 million in 10 years.
"If you look at it as a one-year cost, it may not look as significant," he said. "But when you look at it over time and what it means, it has a different relevance."
The district had been outsourcing its school cleaning services, with the exception of day porters, for years to save money. Other non-academic services, such as transportation, are handled by outside companies, and neighboring districts, such as Dorchester 2, have decided to outsource services such as transportation.
In Charleston, every day porter was guaranteed a job in the outsourcing agreement, and no one was "thrown out to the wolves," Bobby said. Everyone also had optional health insurance and retirement packages, he said.
Ballard was among those who saw his pay increase, but he said he would rather have kept his benefits. The new health insurance package was limited, and he said it was so expensive that it looked as if he would have had to pay more for coverage than it would have cost to go without.
Health insurance was one of the biggest reasons he took the day porter job at Wando High, he said. He had been working as a certified car stereo installer, but his commission tanked along with the economy.
And when he found out that his wife, a teacher at a private school, was pregnant, he said he knew he needed to find a job with insurance.
A church member told him about the day porter job, and Ballard started in February 2009. It was the first time he had done custodial work, but he liked the maintenance and repair work that often fell to him. Since the outsourcing, he said his job duties haven't changed, but the benefits have.
"It's just not right," he said.
Working for the district was the first time Ballard, 27, had a retirement plan. His new employer offered a retirement package, but it paled in comparison to that of the district's, he said.
"I knew without having health insurance that I would need all the money I could get to help pay for the doctors," he said.
Ballard said he thinks the county owes him more than $1,500 that he should have received in his final paychecks, and he doesn't feel comfortable meeting one on one with officials because he said they will make him feel as if he's wrong and give excuses.
Bobby said the way the district pays its employees is difficult to understand, but they have checked every outsourced worker to make sure they have received what they are owed. He said he's willing to look again at any situation that an employee doesn't think is right.
Ballard said he would hire an attorney but doesn't have the money. The transition to a new employer resulted in a lag in his pay checks, and some of his bills, such as a larger-than- average one for power, had to go on his credit card.
He doesn't want a second job because he said he values the small amount of time he is able to spend with his son and wife. And he is not actively looking for a different job, but he is keeping his options open.
"I know I'm really lucky to have a job," he said.