‘We’re not asking for the world’: Wapato School District employees protest for livable wage

WAPATO, Wash. — Wapato School District custodians, bus drivers and paraeducators are calling for livable wages as their union continues to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the district.

About 50 classified employees picketed outside the district office during a school board meeting Monday evening and about a dozen were able to fit inside the building to share their concerns.

Longtime paraeducator Karen Lommers spoke up at the meeting, saying inflation and a rising cost of living has made it even harder to make ends meet.

“With the average classified employee making only about $25,000 dollars a year, we do not make nearly enough to survive,” Lommers said. “Without us, our schools simply could not function and therefore our students could not learn.”

Lommers also serves as vice president of the Wapato chapter of the Public School Employees of Washington, SEIU Local 1948. The union represents about 130 staff members, including custodians, maintenance workers, bus drivers, food service workers and paraeducators.

Union representatives have been in negotiations with the district for a new collective bargaining agreement since March and filed for mediation in June. Their next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, the same day the current agreement is set to expire.

The district has already reached an agreement with the other two unions, representing teachers and administrative staff.

Lloyd Benscoter has been working maintenance for the Wapato School District for almost 18 years, but said that’s not reflected in his paycheck.

“A lot of our employees feel that we’re not, you know, respected, when we’re loyal,” Benscoter said. “We deserve livable wages.”

In Wapato, a bus driver who’s been with the school district for 10 years can make a little over $22 an hour under the expiring agreement. However, during the current school year, the same bus driver could make $26 per hour in Mabton or $28 per hour in White Swan.

“Our bus drivers can go to any other district and work for a higher wage … and several are thinking about doing that,” Benscoter said. “We’re not asking for the world. We’re asking for just a little piece.”

Wapato School District Superintendent Kelly Garza said he understands where the employees are coming from and since he feels like the district is a family, these conversations are difficult.

“We’re working diligently you know, to try and, again, find fair and competitive wages,” Garza said.

However, Garza said they’ve had their own struggles with inflation and limited state funds, there’s only so much they can do with the budget they have now.

Benscoter said he respectfully disagrees with Garza about funding constraints and that the union has presented the school district with ways they could provide a livable wage to employees within the current budget.

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