For five years Linda Newman has risen early each school day to protect the lives of children.
Standing at a corner in Long Beach, she carries a sign warning motorists to heed the army of small bodies parading before them to school.
She is a crossing guard, a larger-than-life figure in the lives of most American schoolchildren. With the $5.17 she earns for each of her 32 1/2 working hours per week, she supports herself and her 5-year-old child. And in the summers, when school is out, she has regularly received unemployment benefits to tide her over until fall.
Like thousands of other crossing guards in California, Newman is subject to legislation in effect since Jan. 1 that will prevent her from collecting unemployment benefits during school vacations such as Christmas and summer.
"I won't be able to pay my rent," she said, warily anticipating the summer of 1985. "I'll have to find another job."
In Long Beach, where Newman and her co-workers are represented by the City Employees Assn., the issue has become a full-blown debate complete with angry meetings, petitions signed by hundreds of parents, letters to city councilmen pleading the cause and negotiations with the city in search of a solution.
In other cities where they are not unionized, the crossing guards' frustrations have remained largely unchanneled.
"They're definitely upset about it," said Earl Boyd, who supervises the City of Los Angeles' 469 non-union school crossing guards, 60% of whom, he estimates, receive unemployment benefits during the summer. "It's really going to hurt some of them."
At the heart of the reaction is the fact that many of the guards--often minority women with children to support on very low incomes--have come to expect and depend on state unemployment benefits to get them through periods when school is out and they have no income.
As employees of cities rather than school districts, the guards have traditionally enjoyed exemption from state rules denying summer and vacation benefits to other school personnel with a "reasonable assurance" of returning to work in the "post-recess period."
It was precisely this apparent inequity, in fact, that prompted state Assemblyman Robert W. Naylor (R-Menlo Park) last year to introduce legislation popularly known as the "crossing guard bill." It passed the Assembly with only four dissenting votes and passed the Senate by unanimous vote last summer.
Law Plugs 'Loophole'
"Why should school crossing guards have special treatment beyond what educational employees have?" said Robin Quirox, Naylor's chief of staff who worked on the bill. The purpose of the legislation, she said, was to place the guards in the same category as most other educational employees, to plug the "loophole" that allowed them to "fall through the cracks" rather than be subject to then-existing law.
According to a survey conducted by the League of California Cities, which, along with the California Taxpayer's Assn., supported the measure, the new law will save cities throughout the state between $590,000 and $1.2 million annually in paid unemployment benefits.
"That's not a whole lot of money," said Quirox, "but it may be significant savings to some cities."
The survey, based on information supplied by 180 of the state's 435 cities, concluded that those cities employ 2,100 paid part-time crossing guards who were responsible for 1,350 unemployment claims, including multiple claims, from 1981 to 1983. Claims are paid entirely by the cities but are administered by the state.
But Robin Nahin, a field representative for the Long Beach City Employees Assn., which has taken up the cause of that city's 62 crossing guards, said the statistics about claims statewide don't tell the human story of the guards. They make considerably less money than most other school personnel and should be given special consideration, Nahin said.
"What would you do if you made $500 a month and couldn't get on unemployment in the summer?" she asked rhetorically.
About 25% of the crossing guards are single heads of households, according to an estimate of one guard who also is a union steward. They work 20 to 35 hours a week. Summer income from unemployment benefits has averaged between $200 and $300 a month for those who have taken advantage of it, Nahin said.
With the loss of that money, many guards will be forced to either go on welfare for the summer or find other permanent employment. And if the latter happens, she said, the city will lose many longtime employees who have provided continuity and competence to parents concerned for their children's safety.
"They do a vital community service," Nahin said of the guards. "We owe them some assistance."
To that end, the union is asking the city to either increase the guards' pay to compensate for the loss of benefits or to find them summer jobs that will keep them on the city payroll through the summer.
In some quarters such arguments have been warmly received.