Lawrence High cafeteria workers protest outside school, express concerns about low staffing and pay

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

Abuk Beng, center, Angie Johnson, and Tanna Innis rally with other kitchen workers outside Lawrence High School, 1901 Louisiana St., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.

Story updated at 5:55 p.m. Thursday:

Lawrence High School cafeteria workers picketed in front of the school Thursday afternoon to express concerns about understaffing and low pay.

The Lawrence school district has 114 classified staff vacancies overall, representing a 17% vacancy rate, with the majority of those openings being paraprofessional and food service positions. LHS cafeteria workers say they are operating with a fraction of the staff they typically have, requiring them to take on the duties of multiple positions.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Abuk Beng, a kitchen staff member at LHS. “I come home every day exhausted.”

Angie Johnson, a cook at LHS, said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the LHS cafeteria had about 20 staff members, and now it only has eight employees and one temporary worker. Johnson and other employees said in addition to preparing meals for LHS students, the LHS kitchen staff helps manage food deliveries to other nearby schools and prepares meals for three other buildings: the College and Career Center, East Heights and the Juvenile Detention Center. She said with the workload and pay, it’s hard to keep employees.

“Honestly, if it keeps going like this, we are going to lose the whole kitchen staff,” Johnson said. “We can’t keep it up. It’s too much of a workload.”

The cafeteria workers began the “informational picket” following the end of their shifts on Thursday afternoon. Like other classified staff, food service workers have expressed concerns about low pay. Job postings on the Lawrence school district website indicate that the beginning pay for food service workers ranges from $10.91 to $11.80 per hour. Pay for food service managers ranges from $12.27 to $13.27 per hour.

Personnel Association of Lawrence-Communication Workers of America (PAL-CWA), the union representing classified staff, has recently said low pay is contributing to the high vacancies in the district. The union pushed for wage increases during contract negotiations ahead of this school year, but the agreed-upon contract fell far short of the union’s goal of bringing minimum pay to $15 an hour.

Melissa Browning, the kitchen manger at Kennedy Early Childcare Center, said she loves all the children she interacts with as part of her job, but it’s disheartening to know that she would get paid more if she were to go work in fast food. Browning said she thought the union’s request was reasonable.

“I don’t think that’s too much to ask for,” Browning said.

About 20 kitchen staff and other PAL-CWA members had gathered along 19th Street on Thursday as of about 3 p.m. Tatyana Younger, a paraeducator at East Heights and instructional vice president of PAL-CWA, said she was there to show solidarity with the LHS cafeteria workers and help bring attention to the challenges they are dealing with.

“At the very least, we just need to make sure people’s humanity and issues are being acknowledged,” Younger said.

The district has about 20 openings in food service, including about six openings at LHS, which are equal to about 33.5 hours per day, since not all positions are full-time, according to a response food service provided the Journal-World. The response states that if LHS were fully staffed, the school would have about 15 staff members or 96.5 hours per day, since not all positions are full time, meaning the openings equate to more than a third of the hours, or about 35%, of what the district currently considers full staffing.

The response states that food service is using local temporary employment agencies to fill in staff and that district staffers in the food service office are also filling in where needed. The response states that kitchen staff play a vital role in student success, and that the district values and appreciates them.

“Kitchen staff arrive at their schools early in the morning to ensure that students have an opportunity to have a hot breakfast before school starts,” the response states. “They make multiple lunch entree options, cut produce for fresh fruit and salad bars, and do all of this while maintaining incredibly clean and sanitary kitchens.”

Regarding the vacancies, the food service response states that the district is rarely fully staffed in food service, typically operating with about 12 unfilled openings districtwide, and that the national labor shortage and other effects of the pandemic continue to challenge the food service industry as a whole.

To account for funding loss due to enrollment declines and set aside money for staff raises, the district made $6.4 million in cuts to staffing and programming for this school year, which included reallocating $1.9 million to increase salaries for both certified and classified staff. Following contract negotiations, the district and PAL-CWA ultimately agreed to allocate an additional $806,336 to classified staff wages, amounting to a 2.863% raise, and to form a committee to reconsider the classified wage matrix. The district has also used pandemic relief funds to pay retention payments to both certified and classified staff, which were doubled to $3,000 total for this school year, as well as to provide free preschool for the children of classified staffers for at least the next two school years.

District spokesperson Julie Boyle said there are no quick-fix, easy solutions to the budget challenges facing Lawrence schools, but efforts would continue.

“Until more financial resources are available through additional state funding and additional reductions and reallocations in spending, the district will continue to look for other ways to create positive and supportive work environments for all employees, support the success and well-being of every employee, and attract high-quality candidates for all employee groups,” Boyle said in an email.

Boyle said per-pupil general operating funds available to Kansas public school districts in 2021 fell below inflation-adjusted 2009 levels, and that calls for change from the school board would likely continue.

“The school board is getting ready to discuss its annual Legislative Priorities,” Boyle said. “They likely will again include a plea for an equitable and adequate system of financial support for public schools.”

Boyle added that the school board and district administration are committed to improving the salaries of all employees and that priority continues to be a part of the ongoing budget conversation.


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