Friday, January 22, 2021

JVS, Do The Right Thing And Fairly Compensate Your Workers

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Rabbi Robin Podolsky
Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at California State University at Long Beach and serves as affiliated clergy at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock. She strives to live and teach a Judaism that is rich with answers and productive questions for people who seek meaning, justice, and kindness in a complex world. She Rabbi Podolsky has published articles in the Journal of Jewish Ethics, the Pluralist, Response, and European Judaism.

When I was a rabbinical student, JVS SoCal, then named Jewish Vocational Services, was there for me, helping me obtain the scholarship money that I really needed. At events for scholarship recipients, I saw firsthand that JVS helped lots of people, Jewish or not, and that many recipients were people of color, often the first in their families to go to college.  Later, when I searched for jobs in the aftermath of the Great Recession, JVS was still there, offering free classes on everything from resume-building to social media. During the worst of the recession, JVS stepped up for our communities, embedding job coaches in synagogues and offering confidential counseling to struggling individuals.

When I finally was able to give tzedakah back to the community, JVS SoCal was first on my giving list. They have been among the agencies I recommend to anybody who asks about worthwhile Jewish organizations that would make the best use of a donation.

You can imagine my dismay, then, when I learned that negotiations between JVS and AFSCME Local 800, the union that represents its employees, have stalled and that JVS’s lawyer, David Wimmer, is Chair of the Labor Lawyers Committee of the Council for a Union Free Environment, which has “encouraged union-free work environments.” JVS SoCal’s stance regarding its employees seems at odds with its tradition and mission of supporting working people in building lives of dignity and prosperity.

According to the union, it has been more than two years since some employees have received a cost of living increase; JVS is offering wage increases of less than 1% and is refusing to contribute to dependent healthcare coverage. They want to eliminate severance pay after layoffs and cut paid Jewish holidays. As of this writing, even though upper management bonuses have not been curtailed, the average wage-rate for workers at the JVS Greater Avenues of Independence (GAIN) unit — the case managers and clerical staff who work in the L.A. County program — is only $17.41 an hour or $36,000 per year. This has resulted in a high turnover rate because employees have learned that they can earn more doing similar work at other agencies.

To make matters worse, it appears that JVS is seeking to weaken union protection for workers. They wish to drop some employees from the bargaining unit, reduce the number of shop stewards and take away workers’ rights to legal redress by forcing disputes into binding arbitration instead of allowing them their constitutionally guaranteed jury trial or to be heard by appropriate state agencies.

A JVS frontline worker with a 200-plus person caseload shared on the union Facebook page that, “I am doing my best to help others. I have such a bad headache and I am losing my health. I want people to hear our voice and appreciate us — our job is very tough and hard especially in the last months. If we are servicing our community let others serve us too. We need financial support right now; we are for others, let others be for us as well.”

Certainly, everyone is feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our economy and are looking for ways to be frugal. Fortunately, JVS SoCal has received hundreds of thousands of dollars of grants, contracts and donations since the pandemic. This would seem like an excellent time for the organization to set an example by prioritizing living wages for its workers and uplifting their status as a collective bargaining unit.

Jewish tradition is explicit in its mandate to treat workers equitably and with respect. Our written Torah teaches, “You may not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy whether he is of your people or of the strangers who are in the land within your gate”  (Deuteronomy 24:14). Our Rabbis taught us that by praising the Temple workers who went on strike until their demands were met — and telling of the disasters that occurred when strikebreakers were hired — that collective bargaining brings justice (Yoma 38a).

Jewish tradition is explicit in its mandate to treat workers equitably and with respect.

JVS has built years of goodwill in the Jewish world. Most of us would like nothing better than to continue our support for the agency in these difficult days. An announcement of a bargaining breakthrough, demonstrating that JVS remains committed to treating its workers with dignity, would go far to rally friends of the organization to its aid. And it would bring JVS closer to the Jewish values that are so integral to its work.

If you’d like to learn more, get involved and contact JVS leadership with your concerns, please follow the Fair Contract for JVS Workers campaign on Facebook and Instagram.

Rabbi Robin Podolsky serves on the Board of Governors for the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din, writes at shondaland.com and jewishjournal.com, advises the Jewish Student Union at Occidental College and serves as writing facilitator and dramaturg for Queerwise, a spoken word and writing group.

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