“People are really burnt out,” said Christian Ponce, a warehouse specialist for MPS Culinary and Wellness Services. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Minneapolis Public Schools food service workers reached a tentative contract agreement with the district on Thursday, averting a strike that would have begun 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 pay, class sizes, and mental health support for students.

“It feels awesome,” said Christian Ponce, a warehouse specialist for MPS Culinary and Wellness Services. “I’m really happy for the other workers—the ones that have been fighting for a long time.”

“The contributions these staff provide to each school community and 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,” Superintendent Ed Graff said in a statement. 

The food service workers, who prepare meals for 30,000 children in Minneapolis daily, had been working on an expired contract without any raises since June 2020. 

At a Thursday afternoon press conference, Graff said he could not share details of the agreement, but expressed appreciation for the workers and gratitude that the district would continue providing nutrition and wellness services without interruption.

But in a press release, SEIU said the agreement included wage increases of up to 24 percent, a total of $3,000 in bonuses, and improvements to benefits. The gains will apply retroactively.

One of the major issues for workers was “step raises.” That’s a pay increase based on length of service. In many union contracts, these step raises are automatic. 

In interviews with Sahan Journal on Wednesday and Thursday, before the settlement was reached, workers described exhaustion from working through the pandemic and civil unrest without raises.

When the pandemic shut down schools, food service workers prepared meal boxes for students and their families. They worked in close quarters with no masks provided by the district, they told Sahan Journal. (The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

“People are really burnt out,” said Ponce.

Then, two months after the pandemic began, many grocery stores throughout the city closed in the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd. Short-staffed nutrition service workers were asked to sort through extensive grocery donations and take on the added responsibility of feeding the entire community.

“The district said we need you to step up. Everybody did,” Ponce said. “Then when it came time for us to get a new contract, everyone felt that we weren’t important anymore. We weren’t essential anymore.”

Ponce said he’d seen about a dozen colleagues leave for St. Paul Public Schools, where food services pay is higher and workers received more hazard pay during the height of the pandemic. A St. Paul Public Schools spokesperson said nutrition services workers earned $3 per hour premium pay, 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 makes $16.

Sherrod Greene, the senior food service coordinator at North Community High School, loves working with his students.

“I feel like I get to change lives every morning, every day,” he said.

Greene begins his days preparing breakfast and lunch for students. When they arrive for breakfast, he greets them all with a “Good morning.” Based on their response—a cheerful reply, or walking past him with their head down—he can see who needs extra support, and check in on those students. 

After Deshaun Hill, the school’s star football player, was killed in February, Greene and the other food services staff wrote “Free hugs” on their sneeze shields to offer support for students. Students open up to the food service workers, and they provide a critical source of support, he said.

SEIU union members announced their 10-day intent to strike on Tuesday, March 15, 2022 outside the Davis Education Center. An agreement with the district, announced March 17, will keep them on the job. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Still, most people see his job as just handing out food to kids, he said.

“We don’t feel like we’re getting paid enough for the things we do,” he said. “We don’t feel like we get enough respect for the things we do.”

In an interview 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 over the summer.

And, he said, he hoped the details of the new contract would show workers respect.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.