Opinion: Commentary: Pandemic Shows Workers Need a Voice in Fairfax County

As county employees, we work tirelessly to provide essential services, often behind the scenes, to make sure our county continues to run and families get what they need during this difficult time. As the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors discusses the budget for the next fiscal year, county employees find ourselves in the same position; wringing our hands hoping that the county will hear our concerns, respect our hard work and invest in us. Every year, we must testify to justify the pay, resources and support we need to do our jobs and maintain the services that Fairfax county families depend on. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we must listen to each other. Fairfax county employees deserve a voice and a seat at the table.

When the pandemic hit, like many people, I was filled with worry and uncertainty. Worried about my job and my fellow childcare providers in the School Age Child Care (SACC) program in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). Worried about the well-being and safety of the kids in my care. The safety of my wife and me was also a major concern, since we are both considered high risk for COVID-19 for medical reasons. Fortunately, I was able to be temporarily reassigned as part of a job match program, but many of my colleagues weren’t as fortunate. Today, I still support and admire the hard work and dedication of the childcare providers in SACC. I proudly stand with them as a fellow union member and ally because I know the struggle firsthand.

SACC employees provide affordable childcare before school, after school and during school breaks for school-aged children in Fairfax, including children with special needs. For many parents, including essential workers, we are their only source of childcare and the only way they can actually go to work. We are here, even when schools are closed. But despite the importance of the work, I often saw us being left behind. For county childcare providers, the daily struggle to get information about protocols and worksites is stunning--we resorted to relying on the FCPS website and informal networks among co-workers for information and updates, not our supervisors. Plus, the apathy towards employees' concerns continues to be demoralizing.

Sadly, in an industry like childcare, where the majority of workers are women and people of color, the work and safety concerns of employees are often dismissed. Pay inequities and lack of benefits are basically ignored. All workers deserve to be respected, protected on the job, and paid a living wage. As a white man, I saw the level of privilege that was afforded to me and denied others, further perpetuating racial disparity and lowering the morale of some of the county’s most dedicated and skilled workers. The same issues can be found in other Fairfax county departments. We can and we must do better; for the sake of the county, its employees, and the diverse community we serve.

This is why we are joining together in our union, SEIU Virginia 512, to win a new tool —called collective bargaining— to push for bigger investments in our jobs and the essential services we provide. By negotiating a contract with the county through collective bargaining, we can lock in our gains and win a seat at the table so we can push for the changes we need to ensure all of us can thrive.

We urge the county to partner with us to pass a collective bargaining ordinance and invest in good jobs so together we can build a stronger Fairfax, no matter where we are from or the color of our skin.

The concept isn’t new. Public employees in forty-seven other states have the right to collectively bargain and it’s time that Virginia employees have the same rights. Also, recent polling shows 68% of Virginia voters strongly support public service employees having collective bargaining rights. Those who know how to do the job should have a seat at the table and be involved in the decisions about those jobs. It simply makes sense and is the right thing to do.

If Fairfax County Employees are allowed to partner with the county, we could save precious time and money, effectively expand and adjust services that families rely on, make responsible choices that invest in workers and create good jobs, reduce turnover in the workforce, improve public services and improve worker morale.

Imagine how much stronger Fairfax County would be if we were allowed to work together? Maybe, county employees won’t have to testify every year to justify being respected and paid a living wage for the work we do, because it’s recognized in a contract. I and thousands of other county employees look forward to that day coming soon.

Norman Hall is a former Childcare Specialist with Neighborhood and Community Services, Fairfax County.

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