Archive for Saturday, September 2, 2000

Crossing guards in short supply

Tight labor market has cities, schools in desperate search

September 2, 2000


— Dorothy Jones worked as a crossing guard near an elementary school for three years, but when classes resumed this week she was not at her usual post.

Like many other crossing guards these days, she had to turn in her uniform.

Silicon Valley's raging economy has forced the rent up $500 on her two-bedroom apartment in the last year, too much for the retired woman to handle. Now she's a part-time nanny for the child of an engineer, and hopes to make more than $1,200 a month -- more than twice what she earned shepherding children across the street.

"They're going to miss me," Jones said. "Everybody calls me the waving lady."

Across the country, the tight labor market has made it hard for cities and school districts to fill openings for such relatively low-paying jobs as crossing guards, substitute teachers and bus drivers.

The problem is especially striking in San Jose, a sprawling city of 900,000 that bills itself as the capital of Silicon Valley.

San Jose starts crossing guards at $12.22 an hour and pays them as much as $14.86 an hour -- far above the 1998 national median of $7.18 -- but there's only two hours of work a day and no health benefits.

That's no longer enough money for many of the retired people and stay-at-home parents who traditionally work as crossing guards. Some have instead found posts as security guards at high-tech companies that offer more hours, said San Jose Police Lt. Randy Cooper, who oversees the crossing guard program.

There are about 130 crossing guards in San Jose, down by about 30 from last year. In addition to those openings, there is also a long waiting list of schools that want help getting children across streets increasingly clogged with the traffic of aggressive commuters.

When someone like Dorothy Jones leaves, the department must replace her with a guard from an intersection that should have two guards but can squeak by with one.

"This is bad," Cooper said. "Something has to happen."

Officials elsewhere share his sentiment.

In nearby Cupertino, home of Apple Computer, city officials placed several newspaper ads for crossing guards and got only two responses. Neither applicant showed up for the interview, service center manager Bob Rizzo said.

And the problem is not confined to Silicon Valley. In Lake Worth, Fla., police officers have had to perform crossing-guard stints. Officials in Arlington, Texas, have aired ads on cable TV in search of crossing guards.

Georgette Branham, who spent 17 years as a San Jose crossing guard and is now the police department's school safety coordinator, plans to recruit at colleges, hoping the job will appeal to students with night classes.

She also has been distributing flyers at senior centers and taking every opportunity to talk up the joys of making sure children are safe.

But many potential candidates are eliminated because the guards must have cars, in case they're needed on short notice at an unstaffed intersection. Others aren't interested in standing around in heat or rain; some can't pass the required police background check.

If only there were more people like Nick Tersigni, 68, who is retired after spending 34 years delivering dairy products. He's been a crossing guard for more than three years, blowing his whistle to halt speeding drivers and reminding children to walk their bikes in the crosswalk.

"I like doing this," he said one recent drizzly afternoon. "There's nothing to it."

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