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'I'm proud to say I am a lunch lady': PPS cooks rally for hazard pay

Workers say school district was late to re-enroll them in a federally-funded program, causing them to lose $1,500. The district says union contributed to the delay.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Most schools have been closed for the last year as teachers worked remotely. But in Portland, many school cafeterias have stayed busy as nutrition services workers prepared meals for kids who needed them. Now, those workers are asking Portland Public Schools (PPS) for hazard pay, money they say they are owed.

On Wednesday, about two dozen PPS employees lined the sidewalk in front of Beaumont Middle School on Northeast Fremont for a “Rally for Respect and Hazard Pay.”

“I'm proud to say I am a lunch lady,” said Veronica Duczek, who stood among them. Duczek and other nutrition services workers are members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

For the last year, Duczek and many other PPS nutrition services workers have prepared meals for students four days a week. Many also helped deliver them. Duczek said their hours were cut, and she believes the district hasn't done enough to compensate them for their work. For that reason, they’re each asking PPS for $1,500 in hazard pay for their year-long effort.

“We want to feed these kids, and so [district officials] are taking advantage of our good hearts our empathy, our compassion,” said Duczek. “We've been handing out meals to the public, putting ourselves and our families at risk and no hazard pay.”

Duczek said the reason they’re asking for $1,500 is the district failed to re-enroll them in the federally-funded Work Share Oregon program at the start of 2021, costing them $300 a week for five weeks.

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“They just didn't enroll them, just pure neglect,” said Jason McLeod, a PPS custodian who rallied in solidarity. “It's free money, didn't cost the district anything, and that's why we're asking for the district to pay them the $1,500 that they could have gotten from the federal government to help them for their wages being cut.”

By email, a Portland Public Schools spokesperson told KGW that the district can't unilaterally enroll employees in Work Share, and that it requires a "mutual agreement" between the union and the employer.

"SEIU did not approach the district about returning Nutrition Services workers to Work Share until January 26," wrote PPS public information officer Karen Werstein. “The district moved rapidly to work with SEIU and set up the program the week of February 8.”

Custodians and nutrition services workers are all members of SEIU. For more than two months, the union has been bargaining with PPS on COVID-related issues, including staffing.

“Back in the early 2000's, we had 600 custodians,” said McLeod. “We have 312 now and we're in a pandemic. [The district] had a year to hire more and instead of hiring more union custodians, they hired 30 contractors instead, which costs more money.”

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The district tells KGW they are hiring custodians and have agreed to add 30 more full-time equivalent.

As bargaining continues, Veronica Duczek will keep preparing meals for kids, and she hopes standing up for her demands will pay off.

“Really, our number one demand is for respect,” she said.