Minneapolis public school food service workers reached a tentative agreement with the district on Thursday, averting a strike that would have started March 28, the school district said.
The settlement comes on the eighth day of a walkout by Minneapolis educators. Four thousand teachers and educational support professionals remain on strike over salaries, class sizes and student mental health support.
“It’s awesome,” said Christian Ponce, warehouse specialist for MPS Culinary and Wellness Services. “I’m really happy for the other workers, those who have been fighting for a long time.
“The contributions these staff make to each school community and to the district are invaluable, especially to our students who depend on their hard work to get the tasty, nutritious meals they need to fuel their bodies and healthy growth,” said said Superintendent Ed Graff in a statement.
The restaurant workers, who prepare meals for 30,000 children daily in Minneapolis, had been working on an expired contract without any raise since June 2020.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Graff said he couldn’t share details of the agreement, but expressed appreciation for the workers and gratitude that the district is continuing to provide nutrition services. and well-being without interruption.
But in a press release, the SEIU said the deal includes pay increases of up to 24%, a total of $3,000 in bonuses and benefit improvements. Earnings will apply retroactively.
One of the main problems for workers was “step increments”. This is a salary increase based on seniority. In many collective agreements, these increments are automatic.
In interviews with Sahan Journal on Wednesday and Thursday, before the settlement was reached, the workers described their exhaustion from working during the pandemic and civil unrest without an increase.
When the pandemic closed schools, food service workers packed lunch boxes for students and their families. They were working closely without masks provided by the district, they told the Sahan Journal. (The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
“People are really exhausted,” Ponce said.
Then, two months into the pandemic, many grocery stores in the city closed amid the civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd. Short-staffed nutrition service workers have been asked to sort through large grocery donations and take on the added responsibility of feeding the entire community.
“The district said we needed you to intervene. Everyone did,” Ponce said. “Then when it came time for us to get a new contract, everyone felt that we weren’t important anymore. We were no longer essential.
Ponce said he saw a dozen co-workers leave for St. Paul’s public schools, where food service wages are higher and workers received more hazard pay during the height of the pandemic. A St. Paul Public Schools spokesperson said nutrition service workers earn $3 an hour, which is no longer in effect.
Any Cedillo Ponce, Christian’s sister, started working for nutrition services during the pandemic. She said her 18-year-old son, who works at McDonald’s, earns more per hour than she does. Cedillo Ponce earns $15 an hour working for the district; her son earns $16.
Sherrod Greene, Senior Food Services Coordinator at North Community High School, loves working with his students.
“I feel like I can change lives every morning, every day,” he said.
Greene begins her days preparing breakfast and lunch for the students. When they arrive for breakfast, he greets them all with a “Good morning”. Based on their response – a cheerful response or walking past him with his head down – he can see who needs extra support and check if those students are doing well.
After Deshaun Hill, the school’s star football player, was killed in February, Greene and the other food service staff wrote “Free hugs” on their sneeze shields to offer support to students. Students are opening up to food service workers and they are a critical source of support, he said.
Yet most people see his job as just giving out food to children, he said.
“We don’t feel like we get paid enough for the things we do,” he said. “We don’t feel like we have enough respect for the things we do.”
In an interview on Wednesday, he said he hoped the new contract would provide back pay, making up for missed raises. He wanted to be able to take a vacation during the summer.
And, he said, he hoped the details of the new contract would show respect for the workers.