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Changes in school food services raise concerns for union

By Staff | Sep 9, 2009

School union officials said they are concerned with cuts to kitchen staff and benefits within the Lee County School District’s food service department.
The Food and Nutrition Services Department was named a region five winner for the state’s Sterling Award in 2009, an award presented to organizations that exhibit “best business practices.”
During the 2006-07 school year, the department was operating with a $2.1 million deficit because of rising food and labor costs. After implementing a series of changes throughout the county, it was able to turn a deepening deficit into a $890,406 profit.
That is one of the reasons why the department had been recognized by the Sterling Council. According to Support Personnel Association President Bob Rushlow, it improved its operation on the backs of workers.
“I have some huge concerns with what they are trying to sell the school board and the public,” he said.
Rushlow said 16 assistant manager positions were eliminated from kitchens across the county. Each of the positions were scheduled for a seven-hour day and included employee benefits. Later, the district advertised for three- or four-hour positions.
According to labor contracts, employees must work six hours a day or 30 hours per week to be eligible for benefits.
The local unemployment rate is more than 13 percent and more students than ever — 60 percent — are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. The school district is the single largest employer in the county, with approximately 10,000 employees.
Not only is Rushlow concerned about the loss of local job opportunities, but that less assistant managers are overlooking each school cafeteria.
“If you have a manager that is off, who fills that position?” he asked.
Many food service employees also had their hours cut to three or four per day, resulting in the elimination of benefits, Rushlow said. In the 2008-09 school year, the district had 200 food service employees affected by the cut in hours and benefits.
Cuts in staff were not targeted to a specific geographical location or school. Schools in the Cape Coral area that experienced cuts were Island Coast High, North Fort Myers High and Cape Coral High, along with other schools throughout the county.
Although many low-level workers have been affected by cuts, Rushlow said the district has not cut one manager position. Instead, he discovered that managers were receiving an annual stipend ranging from $1,100 to $2,200 for serving more than 1,000 meals per day.
Each of the supplements are incorporated into the manager’s pay scale, according to the district contract, and dispersed through regular paychecks.
The union estimated that 22 cents of every meal goes directly to covering the wages and benefits of managers who reportedly do not touch the food that goes to students.
Rushlow said the district should have one manager for every two kitchens, and assistant managers should be incorporated back into the kitchen to oversee daily operations.
Wayne Nagy, food services director, said the department had to make some changes to deal with rising labor and food costs.
“The best way to handle our labor is to put as many hands in the school to take care of children,” he said.
The department cut employee hours, but added more staff during the school day. Nagy said 83 percent of food service staff worked six or more hours in 2007, an increase from 58 percent in 2002. Today’s amount is 68 percent.
“We are in line with a lot of the successful districts in the United States,” he said. “We are trying to do our best to serve the children and keep everyone employed.”
Nagy pointed out that Collier County has 62 percent of its staff working six hours or more, and in Charlotte County that amount is 29 percent. Cutting back on hours has also allowed the district to hold on to many of its 600 employees, he added.
Nagy said it is vital that each school has one manager to handle the coordination of services. He said stipends are a way to compensate managers who are dealing with a larger school.
“All of our managers come from food service workers. It gives them a chance to excel in their line of work,” Nagy said.
The Lee County School District food department is often called “the largest restaurant chain in Southwest Florida” because it serves 61,000 meals per day in 82 schools.