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GCS offers wage increase after two day cafeteria call-out


GCS Nutrition Service workers protest for higher wages. Courtesy Woody Marshall/ News & Record.

A call-out by Guilford County Schools’ Nutrition Service workers demanding an increase in pay ended after two days of negotiations with the Guilford County Schools’ leaders.

“We are grateful to our hard-working employees for their decision to return,” said GCS Superintendent Dr. Whitney Oakley. “We know they share our commitment to students’ well-being, and we look forward to continuing to serve students together.”

On Monday, November 27, around 200 food and nutrition services workers with the Guilford County Schools protested outside of the Guilford County Schools administration building in Greensboro, demanding wage increases.

Right now, cafeteria assistants make roughly $15 an hour. Assistant managers can bring home between $16 and $17 an hour, and managers make around $18 an hour. The workers’ demands were to see managers’ pay increase to $20 an hour and for the district to bring back the Step-Pay Scale Program, which gives raises to staff members who have served the school district longer.

District leadership continued conversations on Tuesday in a closed meeting with almost 100 school nutrition service workers at Hairston Middle School.

District leaders shared their new compensation plan with the press on Tuesday night, but not before Oakley thanked the community for pitching in to provide food for students across the 66 schools that were impacted by the call-out.

“We want to thank the school nutrition staff who came to work, and the school-based employees, parents, central office staff, university partners and community members who volunteered to make sure students did not go hungry during the work stoppage,” Oakley said. “Many of our children count on GCS for at least two meals per day, and our team came together to meet this need.”

The new compensation plan includes a 4 percent salary increase across the board for SNS assistants, with 2.3 percent of the salary increase already implemented. The remainder of the increase will be reflected in the December paycheck. The plan will increase the wages for SNS assistants from a starting $12.25 per hour wage in 2021 to $15.86 per hour in 2023.

Also included is a 7 percent salary increase for SNS managers with 2 percent of the salary increase already implemented for most employees. The remainder of the increase will be reflected in the December paycheck. The new plan will increase the wages for SNS managers from a starting $13.75 per hour wage in 2021 to $18.60 per hour at minimum. SNS managers serving over 100 meals on average per day will qualify for a prorated quarterly bonus. This bonus is separate and in addition to the rate increase described above.

However, workers had been demanding a base pay of $16.50.

“We’re all chasing a market,” said Oakley. “The time when the unemployment rate is so low, it is a moving target. We don’t know until budgets pass to know what is feasible or not. But next year, $16.50 might not be enough when you consider inflation and time and position changes and competition in the labor market. I think it would be shortsighted to say that would be enough, but I also think we can’t say yes, that seems feasible, because we’re not in control of our state budget and how we’re funded.”

Oakley said the step-pay program will be discussed this year during budget talks.

While the school district has already started budget conversations with the county, as the county decides a portion of annual funding to the school district, Oakley noted that with the ending of the federal COVID-19 relief funds, things will look different this year. And because school nutrition services operate as an independent enterprise, pay will look different from what they can do for employees like bus drivers and groundskeepers.

“When the state increased the pay to $15 an hour that was when that pay structure was no longer sustainable. There were people making $12 an hour and the minimum wage was raised and that creates that compression, in terms of how much people make to years of experience. We have gone back and figured out how to do that in different areas, but this is different because it is an enterprise fund, it’s not a state or locally funded source,” said Oakley.

Oakley noted that she met two workers at the meetings, one with 23 years of experience and one with 2 weeks of experience, and they both get the same pay.

“That doesn’t feel fair to anyone, no matter what your job is or what industry you’re in,” she said.

Part of the negotiations included the district’s commitment to launching an advisory council for school nutrition employees for ongoing discussions and feedback on how to improve services to students and create a positive working environment. Oakley noted that the council will consist of SNS assistants and managers, from different school sizes and types. She added that typically GCS advisory boards meet quarterly, and the representatives are selected by their peers. The district’s goal is to officially launch the advisory board by the end January 2024.

“I think what we learned is we need to have their voices at the table in an ongoing way and this is an effort in that direction,” Oakley said.