CLIMBING a ladder while carrying something is a two-person job, says Mark Freimark, head custodian at Southeast Portland's Llewellyn Elementary.

But these days, with only one janitor at a time at some Portland Public Schools (PPS), many district custodians just have to risk it. Janitors are spread too thin over the district's 85 schools, Freimark says, and "workers aren't as safe as they should be."

Understaffing only got worse in June, when PPS fired 14 janitors and eliminated 26 other full-time custodian positions. (Several laid-off workers were offered part-time positions, while six have been rehired full-time.) It's the latest dispute in the long and contentious relationship between PPS and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 503, and the first since they signed a contract in February.

District spokesperson Sarah Carlin Ames admitted in an email that "staffing levels... are well below the optimum," but said the cuts were necessary to meet the district's budget. The district is spending about $18 million on custodial services this year.

The janitor's union, SEIU Local 503, says these cuts are part of the district's effort to shift to a cheaper, less protected part-time workforce (during contract negotiations, the district tried—and ultimately failed—to slash janitors' wages by about 30 percent).

"We used to be a very valued commodity in Portland Public Schools," says Freimark, who is co-chair of a union sub-local.

Ames asserted that when PPS agreed not to lower janitors' wages at negotiations for the contract in February, there was "a firm recognition on both sides that PPS still had to meet its budget."

"The union leadership," she said, "should be able to confirm that these were our discussions."

Not so, said Casey Filice, the union's PPS organizer. She pointed out that discussion of staffing levels during contract negotiations is illegal, adding, "[Ames] should know the law."

In a June 23 letter to the Custodian Civil Service Board—a PPS body charged with oversight of civil service law—attorney James S. Coon requested an investigation of the lay-offs on the union's behalf.

"The district's intent is not to eliminate [the employees'] jobs," he wrote, "but rather to replace these workers with part-time workers who will do the same work for lower pay and no benefits and without civil service protection."

Jeffrey G. Condit, Portland Public School's attorney, asked the board to dismiss the case in a July 17 letter. He argued that the board does not have jurisdiction in the matter, that the firings were not prohibited under civil service law, and that determining staffing levels "remains the exclusive province of the district."

At their monthly meeting in July, the board recognized the issue and agreed to hear more at their next meeting. If the board rules in favor of the union, they have the power to reverse the lay-offs.