NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–As the attendance administrator at a tough downtown Manhattan high school, Cliftonia Johnson was never one to mince words.

Now she’s got plenty to say about New York City’s decision to lay off 642 support-staff workers, predominately women of color, including herself, in early October 2011.

"When you remove support staff, especially good support staff from a school, you are asking for trouble," Johnson, 48, said in a recent interview in a downtown Manhattan diner. "The kids are left with nothing. Teachers are not going to come out of their classroom to break up fights . . . Those calls I made to parents aren’t getting made."

Johnson, employed by the New York City Department of Education for 13 years, is still looking for a job. She says unemployment checks aren’t enough to support her and her grown son, who has special needs and lives at home with her and her younger son.

Budget deficits are causing layoffs of public workers across the country.

But Johnson’s dismissal from Marta Valle High School was of a particular variety: that of the public worker who loses her job to a privatization push by cities and states turning to contractors to provide the same services. Wages, benefits and conditions such as paid sick leave can be eliminated for these workers as private contractors are not held to the same employment standards as the government.

Shortly after Johnson left her job, she says she saw her position posted on New York City’s Department of Education website as a contract position for a private company to fill.

The listing wasn’t coincidental, according to Johnson’s union, District Council 37 (DC 37), which in mid-November announced plans to sue New York for layoffs made in "bad faith." Workers, the union has charged, lost their jobs "under the guise of economic necessity" only to be replaced by contract workers.

New York City’s Department of Education couldn’t be reached for comment

10,000 Jobs Cut

New York City has eliminated 10,000 public sector jobs since 2003, but it has also doubled its contracts budget from $5 billion to $10.5 billion since 2005, according to Henry Garrido, associate director for DC 37.

Federal workers are also getting phased out by private contracts.

While jobs in all sectors of government have been dwindling since 2008, federal spending on contracts has jumped. It doubled between 2001 and 2008 to $500 billion, according to a White House memo.

Women, meanwhile, have suffered a disproportionate majority–nearly 66 percent–of the public sector job losses. For black women–who have higher overall levels of unemployment and rely on public sector jobs as their second-biggest source of employment–outsourcing is particularly harmful, according to Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at University of California, Berkeley.

From 2008 through 2010, a black woman was 22 percent more likely to be employed in the public sector than a non-black woman, Pitts found in an April 2011 research brief on black workers and the public sector.

Pitts says questions of race and gender haven’t factored into the national dialogue of public sector cuts and who they are most likely to affect.

Women’s unemployment in the U.S. declined last month to 7.8 percent, but African American women’s unemployment rate in November remains well above that at 12.9 percent, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

At a recent DC 37 briefing on the October layoffs of the school workers, City Council and U.S. Congress-members mostly voiced concern over issues of fraudulent contractors and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s ability to withhold details of contracts brokered with private corporations.

An ongoing federal criminal investigation into over-billing and other fraudulent activity in one $700 million contract between the city and an outsourced IT company is among several ongoing publicly reported cases investigating fraud on the part of city contractors.

Cost Analysis Lacking

The deals are said to save the city money, the Bloomberg administration has maintained, but unions argue that it is not always the cheaper option, and that there needs to be a cost-analysis system put in place.

The New York City Council voted Dec. 8 to override Bloomberg’s veto of the Outsourcing Accountability Act, which will require the city to post public notices of intended service contracts, and also to perform cost-benefit analyses of public-versus-private employees when a contract could threaten the displacement of city workers.

Council member Letitia James was one of the Congress members who supported the legislation.

"All the more we outsource the more we adversely affect women, at the expense of them and working families," James told Women’s eNews in a phone interview before the vote. "What we’re seeing in New York is the feminization of poverty."

James said the city’s financial plan for 2012-2015, released in mid-November, is set to "hit day care programs and after school programs hard." That means many of the public sector, low-wage jobs that are commonly held by women could be cut further.

The school workers laid off in October earned between $14,000 and $18,000 annually.

Iris Rodriguez, 56, was laid off from her job as an after-school aide from Public School 56 in October. She says she is worried about paying overdue medical bills and supporting her granddaughter.

Along with Johnson, she’s hoping the union will win the lawsuit so they can return to their jobs.

"I don’t think there was a reason for us to get laid off," Rodriguez said in a phone interview. "They still have the money to fill the positions, so why shouldn’t we be there?"

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Amy Lieberman is a correspondent at the United Nations headquarters and a freelance writer in New York City.