Thursday, September 25, 2008

L.A. UNIFIED CLERKS MUST DO WINDOWS: School district office workers whose jobs were cut must show computer competence for a shot at reemployment. For some, it's a tall order

by Jason Song, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 25, 2008 -- Seventy-one-year-old Peggy McIntyre needs to learn as much as she can about Windows before 8 a.m. Or else.

McIntyre is one of about 40 L.A. Unified School District employees, mainly women nearing retirement age, whose jobs were eliminated in budget cuts in June. For a chance at another position with the district, the clerks need to pass a test proving that they can manage a spreadsheet and type a letter.

That's a tall order for McIntyre, who's spent almost six years entering data by hand for the district's transportation department and has rarely used a computer during her career. Her son gave her one several years ago, but she mainly used it to surf the Internet and watch soap operas before it stopped working and she never replaced it.

McIntyre has been taking computer classes four times a week to prepare for the test, but she isn't sure if she can make up enough ground before today's test.

"She's really cramming, but she needs a little more time," said Ellena Anderson, an instructor at the Venice Skills Center who teaches McIntyre on Mondays and Wednesdays. "I wish I could take it for her."

As daunting as the upcoming test appears, it isn't unexpected. The district cut nearly $400 million from its budget in June, eliminating nearly 500 positions. The Board of Education wanted to keep cuts away from classrooms, so about half of the jobs lost were clerical, including 40 positions from the transportation department. At the same time, the district has been trying to automate its record-keeping.

Connie Moreno, a labor relations representative, said she knew this day was coming when the district implemented an expensive computer program last year to manage its complex payroll system. Although it was a fiasco, with thousands of employees being paid the wrong amount or not at all, Moreno said the writing was on the wall.

"I begged them to take computer classes," said Moreno, who sent a flier to her California School Employees Assn. members that read "Don't wait until you find a layoff notice in your mailbox."

"The secretaries of yesterday are gone," she said, "even in L.A. Unified."

With her hip sunglasses and fashionable retro half-boots -- "I think I got them in the 1970s," she said -- McIntyre doesn't look 61, much less 71. But, in any case, she says, "I'm too old for computers."

It didn't help that her district job entailed logging bus drivers' hours by hand in a small ledger. Virtually all of the test-takers worked for the transportation department, one of the least technology-reliant departments in the district.

Michele Bryant, 43, who also works as a transportation clerk and is due to take her test soon, said she has never had to use a computer. Although she has one at home, "I just use it for solitaire," Bryant said.

When McIntyre heard earlier this month that her job was in danger, she signed up for computer literacy courses in Gardena and Venice.

On a recent Wednesday, she took a seat at one of the 18 computers in Anderson's classroom. McIntyre quickly ran into problems when she tried to organize a column, but Anderson already was working with one of the other six students.

McIntyre leaned back in her chair.

"Teacher," she whispered. "Teacher, hey. Miss Anderson. . . . "

Finally, one of the other students came over to help, clicking a few buttons to make the column line up. "You have to go to 'preview,' then 'set up,' " she told McIntyre.

"Oh, you're so good," she replied as she scribbled notes.

Then McIntyre got off on the wrong foot when she started typing a letter.

"What's the first thing you do?" Anderson asked her. After McIntyre fumbled for the answer, Anderson told her to hit the "enter" button six times.

"Remember in the old days, when you had to roll the paper down on a typewriter? That's what you're doing here," she explained.

Even with numerous pointers from Anderson, it took McIntyre almost an hour to type two short letters. She did a small dance in her chair when she finished. "I even did the check spell," she said triumphantly.

"The spell check," Anderson said softly.

Later, McIntyre admitted she was worried.

"I gotta pass that test," she said. "I try to make light of it, but it's all up to me whether I pass it."

Employees can take the test once every four months, but they run the danger of their jobs being eliminated if they fail the first time.

McIntyre said she wasn't sure what she would do if she doesn't pass. She makes about $1,100 a month and already lives on a tight budget. She's taped the heel of her right boot rather than spend the money to repair it, and even if she gets hired at another district job, it could be a part-time position without benefits.

"A district job is my best option," she said.

Others are just as concerned.

Bryant spent nearly 15 years as a homemaker before getting a job with the district 2 1/2 years ago. She knows that she needs to take the computer literacy test but hasn't scheduled an appointment. She estimates she's only 40% ready, but she's not taking a class to help her prepare.

"If I don't get another position with the district, then it's unemployment," said Bryant, who has a teenage son and daughter.

Lydia Calhoun, 54, who has worked for the district for nearly 30 years and is the longest-tenured clerk, has been practicing her typing at night. "I'm up to about 40 or 50 words a minute," she said.

If employees don't pass the test, there is another district option available. L.A. Unified has some bus driver positions open, although the training would be unpaid and the hours difficult.

"I'm physically able to do it, Calhoun said, "but I'd really prefer not to.

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