Editor's note: Some interviews were conducted in a different language and were translated to English by the writer.
State and federal emergency leave began for all Durham Public Schools employees last week to the relief of many essential employees who felt forced to choose their paychecks over their health.
Travis Anderson, the district’s executive director of facilities services, said no custodians – whom the district considers essential staff – are working right now in the school buildings.
“The emergency leave has been very popular,” said Chip Sudderth, the district’s chief communications officer.
The North Carolina State Board of Education approved paid emergency leave meant to accommodate concerns surrounding COVID-19 for school employees on March 27.
Employees are eligible if they are sick with the virus, have to care for children or elderly relatives or are considered “high-risk” individuals.
Likewise, federal legislation offers employees who are sick with COVID-19 or self-quarantining up to two weeks of paid leave. Employees may also receive two-thirds of their pay if they need to care for children because schools and paid childcare facilities are closed.
Part-time employees may receive leave based on the hours they work, but variable or day-to-day substitute employees aren’t eligible.
Deborrah Bailey has worked for 12 years as a custodian in an administrative building called Bacon Street. She’s also the Durham Association of Educators’ classified staff representative and a self-described advocate for her coworkers.
Last week, Bailey applied for one month of state emergency leave. She said she’s considered a high-risk individual because she’s 66 years old and has borderline high blood pressure and some upper respiratory issues. She said she was officially approved for leave on April 1.
But despite relief, she and several Durham Public Schools custodians described a roll-out process they said left them confused and feeling underappreciated.
DPS closed its doors to students on March 16 and to staff a week later, but essential employees like custodial and maintenance staff continued working.
As they did, confirmed cases of COVID-19 continued to climb in Durham County, prompting Durham’s mayor and the Durham County Board of Commissioners to issue mandatory stay-at-home orders, which directed people to only leave their homes for essential activities, like buying food.
Under such circumstances, Bailey said she and many custodians began to fear for their safety and that of their families.
“There’s a great percentage of this work force that are ‘at-risk’ based on what their qualifications are for ‘high risk,’" she said. “We’re over 60, and we have some medical issues, be it whether or not they’re monitored or not.”
That’s why Bailey urged her fellow custodians to submit public comments to the DPS Board of Education to review during their March 26 virtual meeting.
“I’m like, ‘Listen. It can’t just be me. I have your backs, but it helps if they’re hearing something from you,'” Bailey said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, well here’s Ms. Bailey again.’”
Bailey said the district had begun moving custodians to schools they didn’t usually clean, which upset many, including one Durham custodian who asked to remain anonymous. This custodian said she began working in an unfamiliar school with people she didn’t know, which made her feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
“You just don’t know the people that you’re around or their livelihoods,” she said. “What do they do when they get off work?”
Although she said she’s particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of her diabetes, she said she needed to work.
“I can’t afford to lose all the time that I got, especially if something happened,” she said.
On March 27, Anderson held a live broadcast with DPS employees addressing many of the concerns and questions the school board received the night before.
“While we are dealing with COVID-19 and schools are closed to students, anyone who does not want to come to work for any reason does not have to come to work,” he said during the broadcast.
He said the district moved custodians to different schools because only about 58 percent of custodians had been working at the time, and the district chose to group custodians together for their safety.
But Bailey said the broadcast seemed reactive because it came after custodians aired their grievances to the board. Though new federal legislation expanding leave was passed on March 18, she said that call was the first time the district had told them about it.
Arasi Adkins, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resource services, updated the school board about the new federal legislation during the March 26 board meeting. She told board members that Durham would enact it on March 30 and continue sending out emails with updates to employees.
“We will continue to communicate with our staff any guidance that becomes available – local, state or federal,” she said in the meeting.
Xenia Carcamo is a lead custodian at Forest View Elementary, where she’s worked for 15 years. She said she recently filled out the necessary paperwork to receive emergency paid leave because some of her coworkers traveled by bus to work, and they didn’t have personal protective gear.
Like Bailey, Carcamo said she doesn’t think the district communicated the new leave policies well to employees, especially those who only speak Spanish.
“The majority of our custodians don’t speak English,” Carcamo said. “Others don’t understand it or speak it. Some only understand a little but don’t speak it.”
To communicate with Spanish-speaking employees, Anderson said the district posted a translated transcript of his speech before his broadcast on March 27.
“We offered opportunities for Spanish speakers to partner with a bilingual lead custodian to assist during the live broadcast,” he said.
Beyond the call, he said they distributed large posters with information about COVID-19 in English and Spanish to custodians before they left. He said they also have two bilingual staff members on the Custodial Services team available to answer questions.
But Carcamo said Anderson’s broadcast was primarily in English. Another woman translated questions for Spanish speakers, she said, but not Anderson’s speech.
“I don’t think that’s right because everyone has to know what he’s saying,” she said.
Though she’s still learning English, she said she told her coworkers the most essential parts of the speech.
Carcamo said the district didn’t clearly tell them how much pay they would receive while on leave either.
“They did not explain the percentage,” she said. “We all filled out the form but without knowing that we will only be paid 100 percent if we qualify. If not, we will be paid less.”
But even though Carcamo said she doesn’t know how much pay she’ll receive, she said she’s satisfied with the district’s decision.
“We’re safe at home,” she said. “And I know that God will provide for all of us who have been affected.”
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