State College school employees negotiate backpay after COVID-induced concessions

As the pandemic took hold of our lives in 2020, public and private employers alike tried to cut back on all expenses, including payroll.

Labor unions were there to protect their members from the brunt of these COVID cuts whenever possible, but also worked with employers to seek the best possible outcome for everyone in a time when we all needed to band together (while maintaining a safe distance).

The members of AFSCME Local 259 in the State College Area School District (SCASD) agreed to forgo their expected pay increases in 2020 as the district found itself in a fiscal pinch, under the conditions that there would be no layoffs and the matter of pay increases would be revisited if the financial situation improved. When spring rolled around in 2021, SCASD had successfully avoided layoffs of AFSCME-represented employees and federal dollars were rolling into the public sector.

AFSCME Local 259 members pose for a picture at their September 18 local union meeting. Pictured left to right: President Jim Fogleman,
Secretary Sue Grove, Treasurer Deb Wisor (Standing), VP Nigel Wilson, Gail Witherite, and Executive Board Member Deb Bair (Kneeling).

Jim Fogleman, a Building Supervisor in SCASD’s Delta Program High School and President of Local 259, represents the custodians, maintenance staff, food service workers, and bus drivers in the district. Jim noticed employees in surrounding school districts were receiving bonuses, so he, along with his fellow local union executive board members and District Council 83 staff representative Dave Carey, went back to district leadership to negotiate.

Local 259 members pointed out that they went above and beyond to continue serving their school district and their communities throughout the pandemic without pay increases, and the district recognized that.

“Our school district gave out meals on Wednesdays, and it started when the pandemic started. Our employees helped bag and give out over a million meals from last March [of 2020] until August 11 [of 2021],” Jim said, explaining that bus drivers and other workers whose normal duties got disrupted shifted to these kinds of jobs to fill the void.

“So, it wasn’t like the AFSCME employees took a break. It actually got a little more intense for us to step up to the plate and do that.”

With all of this in mind, the district agreed to give employees their regular pay increases as well as retroactive backpay to make up for the raises they forwent, and they agreed to keep healthcare costs the same for employees.

“We are lucky to have the school district that we have to work with. We are lucky. They truly do understand, and they truly do care,” Jim said.

“I think all in all it turned out really well for everyone, and the school district was very appreciative of what we did.”

When asked about SCASD employees who are represented by AFSCME and will benefit from this agreement, but are not members of the union, Jim asked that those folks consider that the union helps workers negotiate fair contracts, advocates for safer working conditions, and even offers assistance with hearing aids and eyewear among other benefits.

He said, “I think too many people think that a union protects only the bad people, and that’s not the case. The union is here to protect everyone and make it a better place to work.”

While speaking to Council 13 about his local’s agreement with the district, Jim was juggling supervising duties, questions on his two-way radio, and a call from the school principal, but seems to enjoy his work and the interactions with those around him, including the students. He speaks highly of the kids in the Delta program and describes them as kind, courteous, polite, and respectful.

“Working with the teachers and the kids to make it a good place to come to school – that’s the highlight of the job.”