Custodians, supervisors and classified staff in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will soon receive Hero Pay compensation.

SMMUSD’s Board of Education has unanimously approved a Memorandum of Understanding, which was ratified on Friday, June 11 by SEIU Local 99, a union representing hundreds of SMMUSD custodians, food service workers, teaching assistants and other classified school employees, after months of negotiations.

Under the agreement, SEIU Local 99 members who worked during the shutdown are eligible to receive up to $2,000 depending on their assignment during the pandemic. All non-represented employees, including Certificated Senior Management, management and classified staff, will be eligible for a maximum $2,000 off-schedule payment as well.

The public call for Hero Pay began back in March when SEIU members flooded the public comment portion of a meeting. It had been almost a full year since Maintenance Worker Henry Plasencia first discovered he had contracted COVID-19.

“One day, I just didn’t taste my food anymore. I was taking cold showers to take down the fevers. Then, I started to give up the fight and started to get really sleepy,” Plasencia said in an interview after he and his peers spoke at the meeting.

Plasencia remembered arriving at the emergency room and doctors asking for his final words.

“I said, ‘Tell everyone that I love them and give me the phone so I can tell my wife what’s going on.’ But the phone wasn’t working and my cell phone was at 1% so I had zero contact with her. I left her at home fighting COVID-19 and she had no idea if I was coming home or not,” he said. “You couldn’t imagine how I felt.”

Plasencia almost lost his life after spending six weeks in an induced coma but he would survive and later join his peers on-campus, where they have worked to ensure a safe return for SMMUSD students.

“My life was almost cut short and now God has given me a second chance at living again. That’s why I’m dedicated to fighting for even a dollar more an hour. So, if I go my family has an extra dollar to go a little bit further,” Plasencia said. “When you’re gone and they ask, ‘How much was in his last paycheck or pension?’ — that’s when the Hero Pay is going to help because there will be something extra there to help cover the rent, to help cover the light bill or put food on the table. That’s when that $5 an hour is going to count because, at any minute while we’re working, one of us could get sick, go into the hospital, and whatever we have in the bank is all our families are going to have.”

On Thursday, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Mark Kelly said he was glad the district is able to recognize all of the various district employees for their extraordinary efforts during the most difficult two school years in history.

“The term ‘hero’ is so fitting that our SMMUSD community continue to serve students and be responsive to the many different issues that they faced — be they how to ensure continuity of instruction, ensuring students receive meals, they have the technology to engage in distance learning and what we went through to for the reopening process to make sure that our students and staff are safe,” Kelly said.

“I am pleased that the Board of Education approved hero pay for our hard-working classified staff. Our classified members are essential workers. They were on the front lines throughout the pandemic in various capacities, ensuring the ongoing health and safety of our students and staff and continued stewardship of our school facilities,” Superintendent Ben Drati said Friday. “We appreciate them. We are glad we received one time funds from the federal government that allowed us and many other school districts to provide hero pay.”

The payments are expected to be issued no later than July 9, according to district leaders, so they can be considered an expenditure for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Brennon@smdp.com