Feb. 23, 2005, 9:26PM


Houston runs with the pack

Survey puts city in the middle on economic issues


How well does Houston compete in the global economy?

About as well as most similar cities, according to a recent examination of economic data that will be announced today.

In fact, Houston fell squarely in the middle of the pack of seven cities in the survey conducted by the Gulf Coast Workforce Board.

The board reviewed about a decade's worth of publicly available economic data — ranging from job growth to median household income to monthly housing costs — in an effort to start a discussion on what Houston needs to do to become more competitive in the worldwide economy.

"The report says that our region has a competitive advantage in its population — we're young, we're growing, we're diverse," said Rodney Bradshaw, director of human services for the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the board's staff director.

The 63-member board allocates $170 million in job training and job placement funds from the federal government in 13 counties. Those counties are Harris, Liberty, Chambers, Galveston, Brazoria, Matagorda, Wharton, Fort Bend, Colorado, Austin, Waller, Montgomery and Walker.

"In the last century, the competitive advantage for our region was to a large degree natural resources," Bradshaw said. "In the future, especially in a knowledge economy, it will be our people."

The survey compared Houston with Atlanta, Denver, San Diego, Dallas, San Antonio and Miami.

Houston's strength is its diverse labor force, the fact that more than one-third of its jobs are considered "knowledge jobs" and its relatively low unemployment rate, said the board, which gave the city an "A" on that part of the report card.

Houston received "B's" for the five other categories, including the diversity of its industrial base, mix of supply and demand for skilled workers, education level, median household income and competitive cost of living.

"We want to be one of the top 10 economic regions in the world, and this report card is just a step to identify the areas our community needs to improve on for both employees and employers," Bradshaw said.

"I hope it generates some discussion on what we can do better and how to improve our competitive advantage," said Bradshaw, who wants to turn the report card into an annual event.

The report said Houston can improve its competitive position worldwide if it:

•Focuses on creating high-wage, high-skill jobs.
•Increases high school and college graduation rates.
•Ensures colleges and technical schools teach the skills employers need.
•Offers opportunities for workers to upgrade their skills.
•Provides labor market information so residents know which skills to learn.
•Focuses on educating the diverse work force for the jobs of the future.
•Improves regional mobility.
•Supports quality of life amenities that attract and keep highly skilled workers.
•Focuses on important regional industries such as health care, energy, aerospace, engineering, business services, construction and biotechnology.
•Strengthens the region's infrastructure, maintains its favorable business climate and helps local businesses grow.
It's also important to address the issues and needs of immigrants in terms of education, health care and higher wages, said Richard Shaw, a member of the Gulf Coast Workforce Board and secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO.

"We have to move them into higher wage jobs because we're just increasing the number of people at the poverty level," Shaw said. "Unless we start addressing education and training issues, they have no ability to move into higher wage jobs."

But the board's hands are tied because it can't spend money on undocumented workers, Shaw said. That means illegal immigrants can't get access to job training and similar services.

"But the immigrant population is growing, and it becomes a ticking time bomb of needs unmet," Shaw said.

"We don't hesitate to use this population to perform necessary jobs, but we're not meeting their needs."


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


March 4, 2005, 11:29PM


Fired workers blast Aramark

4 managers say they were ordered to change records to show a higher number of meals


Four Houston cafeteria workers say they're being fired for following orders to conceal evidence that the school district overbilled the federal government.

The allegations are the latest in an ongoing state probe into the Houston Independent School District's food service operations, managed by Aramark.

Late last month, HISD stopped serving breakfast in the classroom after a 10-member team from the state Department of Agriculture found that schools may not be serving as many meals to poor children as HISD reports to the government.

On Friday, the women decided to come forward after receiving letters from their supervisors notifying them that they will be fired.

Pamela Owens ran the Peck Elementary cafeteria, Mary Jackson managed the cafeteria at Lockhart Elementary, Veda Jones was at Crespo Elementary and Demetria Miller supervised the Gulfcrest Elementary cafeteria.

"There was some fraud by Aramark," said Wretha Thomas, president of the Houston Educational Support Personnel Union, which represents about 1,500 cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other nonteaching employees. "We will not allow our members to be used as scapegoats."

The late-January review, which only concentrated on a handful of schools, found cafeteria workers were not keeping accurate counts of meals served on most campuses. Aramark's breakfast in the classroom program, used at 40 schools, received particularly low marks, prompting Superintendent Abe Saavedra to suspend the program until Aramark demonstrates the counting problems have been fixed and campus principals request to reinstate the program. HISD is now planning training for some schools that want to bring back the program, said HISD spokesman Terry Abbott.

Also Friday, HISD filed a written response to the Agriculture Department's findings, asking the department to further explain several of the core allegations.

District administrators said they haven't seen evidence to support the state's contentions that HISD has no accurate system for counting meals and that some students were given free meals, even though there was no documentation to prove they were eligible.

"We are very focused on getting further clarification," said Reginald Moore, HISD's chief operating officer.

Comparing records

State officials will now review HISD's response and determine whether the school district will have to reimburse the federal government for any meals.

The four cafeteria managers said they and their colleagues from around the city were ordered to bring their breakfast records to Barbara Jordan High School in December, shortly before the state review was to begin.

In the school, the managers were divided into smaller groups, where their supervisors compared the managers' breakfast records to those that Aramark submitted to the government for reimbursements, they said.

"There were two sets of books," Jackson said. "They were telling us to change the number of meals that were served. I had to go back and change my actual numbers and put in higher numbers."

Added Owens, "We had to throw ours away."

An Aramark spokeswoman did not return phone calls seeking comment Friday. Speaking on Aramark's behalf, Abbott said the company denies allegations that employees instructed cafeteria managers to alter records during the meeting at Barbara Jordan High School.

"Aramark strongly denies that anything inappropriate was done in this process. Aramark describes the process as simple verification of data," Abbott wrote in an e-mail. "It is not unusual at all — in fact it is expected in every organization — that efforts will be made to insure that data is complete."

In termination letters sent to the women over the past few weeks, food services supervisors said they were losing their jobs partly because of "bulk editing" practices, where they would use tally sheets to track the number of students eating free meals and then enter all of them into the computer at one time. Cafeteria workers are supposed to put that information in the computer as each child goes through the line.

The women's meal records showed unusually high numbers of meals recorded through the bulk editing process, the letters state. One letter suggests the promise of a $1,000-per-semester bonus for cafeteria managers could have motivated the women to inflate their meal counts.

Jackson said she earned about $10.50 an hour and her last bonus was for $400. Jackson said she never served enough breakfasts to hit the bonus target, and that she earned her bonus by keeping costs down.

Owens, Jackson, Jones and Miller said they were following bulk editing procedures that Aramark had in place for years and only changed after the state audit exposed them as inadequate.

The women are represented by an attorney and the Houston Educational Support Personnel Union.

Contract renewal nears

HISD's cafeteria operation was a money loser until Aramark took over the management duties in 1997. The company's contract is up for renewal in June.

Under the federal government's meal program for poor children, schools receive $1.25 for every free breakfast and 95 cents for each reduced-price breakfast they serve. About 80 percent of HISD's 209,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The school district billed the federal government $69 million last year and paid Aramark nearly $5 million.


  Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

  March 4, 2005, 11:34PM


Airline intensifies labor push

Continental says concessions crucial as votes approach


Continental Airlines reported it lost almost $4 million a day in February and on Friday stepped up its campaign to persuade employees to approve proposed contracts.

The contracts were announced earlier this week by the Houston-based airline and four employee unions. They are needed to reach the airline's target of $500 million in wage and benefit concessions.

Union members still need to give their consent.

Larry Kellner, Continental's chairman and chief executive, said in a taped message to workers Friday that it is imperative the concessions be approved for the airline to succeed.

"January and February are traditionally slow travel months for us, but these are very large losses. And our financial plan shows us losing hundreds of millions of dollars in 2005," Kellner said. "The $500 million in pay and benefits is critical."

Leaders of the pilots union at Continental agreed to approve and support the contract and send it to the membership for a vote. The decision was unanimous by the governing body of the pilots union at Continental. The unit is affiliated with the Air Line Pilots Association.

The deal for the pilots reportedly involves an hourly pay cut of 8.9 percent, said UBS airline analyst Robert Ashcroft, citing pilot sources.

The union would not discuss specific details Friday, but it has said members will get an enhanced pension and job security, plus stock options.

Meanwhile, the flight attendants union on Friday put details of its agreement with the carrier on its Web site. The union's deal includes no cuts in base wages, it said.

However, some premium pay rates would be cut under the new contract and paid vacation days will be reduced.

Raises of 2 percent in 2007 and 2 percent in 2008 also are part of the proposed flight attendant contract. UBS reported that similar pay raises also have been promised to pilots.

Flight attendants are to receive 1 million of the 10 million in Continental stock options the carrier agreed to provide employees as part of the concessions package, according to the union, which is part of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Continental also said Friday that it garnered approval from the New York Stock Exchange to issue the stock options to its employees without getting shareholder approval first.

The exchange accepted the airline's claim that a delay to get shareholder approval would place the company in jeopardy, Continental said.

The pilots union and flight attendants union are expected to vote this month on the 45-month contract, as are members of the unions representing Continental mechanics and dispatchers. They are affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Transport Workers Union, respectively.

Kellner said passage of the concessions package will determine whether the airline follows the path of failed competitors or takes a path to success.

"There is really no alternative but to implement these cost reductions," Kellner said.


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle