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AEA News

Classified Staff Strengthen Union Voice During COVID-19

AEA Awarded NEA Organizing Grant for ESP Organizing on Zoom
Published: 10/11/2020

When the pandemic hit Arizona, many school districts were on spring break and would not reopen until the fall. Though schools were closed, Education Support Professionals (ESP) like Nancy Arvizo continued to come on campus to work across the state. Arvizo is a cafeteria manager in the Isaac Elementary School District, where she has worked for the past 13 years. “We kept working, preparing meals for students and families to come and pick up from school.” 

Arvizo and her colleagues struggled with having adequate safety supplies, like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and while the district was paying them time and a half, they had received word that this was going to stop soon. Arvizo realized something needed to be done, so she spoke with her colleagues about writing a letter to the Superintendent about their concerns.

After the letter was written and signed by the cafeteria workers at every site, Arvizo delivered it to the Superintendent’s office. “I was really nervous dropping off letter, but excited because we were taking this big step for all of us. It felt good because other cafeteria managers who had been there for a lot longer said that no one had ever done anything like this before.”

Superintendent Ventura responded by inviting them to a Zoom call to listen to their concerns. “Most of the cafeteria workers were on this call, which some had never done before,” says Arvizo. “At first they were quiet, but once they realized the Superintendent was listening to them, then they really started to express how they felt.” Staff were able to share their concerns and work collaboratively on solutions. These Zoom calls have continued and using Zoom to organize ESP around workplace issues is the central part of an organizing grant AEA was awarded by our national affiliate, the National Education Association.

Prior to COVID-19, ESP leaders across the state attended the AEA ESP Leadership Conference. These leaders and AEA staff quickly got together on statewide Zoom meetings to hear from ESP members across the state about workplace concerns and create a space for them to collaborate and organize. Arvizo attended the first statewide Zoom meeting and it was during this time, she connected with Esmeralda Maldonado, a paraeducator who was an Isaac District Education Association (IDEA) member working in the cafeteria during the school closure. Maldondo worked with Arvizo to host a Zoom meeting in Spanish language with resources and staff from AEA.

From March 31 to May 5, 10 Zoom calls were organized with over 250 members participating. These calls started out as statewide endeavors, then split into job categories for Custodial, Food Service, and Transportation. Webinars covering employees’ rights specific to ESP working during the pandemic were conducted by AEA General Counsel with a Spanish language translator. 

Part of the grant includes identifying member organizers and leaders to host site-based Zoom meetings with support staff. The purpose of these meetings is to gather information about workplace issues and concerns, share information about AEA resources, and create connections among union members.

“AEA support was great,” says Arvizo. “They helped guide us through the process and told us what steps we needed to take.”

Through this organizing work and grant, ESP members in Isaac, Roosevelt, and Mesa school districts have gained wins for their members: Isaac custodial staff were able to conduct a campaign to get masks provided and Isaac food service staff were able to come to an agreement around fair pay and get PPE provided from the district; ESP members in Roosevelt Education Association were able to provide feedback to their district on what other ways they can support outside of their job families; and the Mesa Educational Support Personnel Association was able to get PPE for their members from the district.

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Keeping the Promise of Quality Public Education

With more than 20,000 members, the Arizona Education Association (AEA) is the largest professional association for public school employees in Arizona. AEA members are teachers, community college professors, counselors, speech pathologists, bus drivers, secretaries, retired educators and student teachers and they belong to more than 150 local affiliates across Arizona.