Custodial cafeteria workers speak out

LEWISTOWN – Union representatives for the Mifflin County School District’s custodial and cafeteria workers met with The Sentinel on Tuesday to share their thoughts about the new contract agreement with the school district.

The new contract went into effect Monday, with many full-time custodial and cafeteria workers taking more than a $2 per hour cut in pay and part-time employees seeing their hourly pay reduced between 96 cents and $1.83 per hour, according to figures reported in The Sentinel on Oct. 11. The district’s custodial and cafeteria workers are represented by the Pennsylvania State Association of Educators-ESP Group.

With the new contract in effect, Pam Colyer, a kitchen helper who serves as co-president for the cafeteria workers, saw her hourly rate drop from $14.57 to $12 – a cut of 17 percent.

“It makes me feel worthless. The teachers already had their contract with a 2.4 percent raise, the secretaries and aides got their contract, and the administrators had already negotiated their raises and benefits, too, but ours get cut,” Colyer said. “I feel like we had to sacrifice in order for everyone else to get want they wanted.”

Colyer said while she and her coworkers are clearly unhappy with the reduction in pay, they are not going to let it affect the quality of their work.

“We’re just going to have to tighten our belts and hope this economy gets better. But we will not give anything less to these kids – they’re our job.”

Darla Koontz, vice president for the cafeteria workers and employed as a kitchen assistant manager, said her position was one of the few that was not required to take a pay reduction under the new contract, but that has created problems of its own.

“It’s been hell. Some of these other people I work with are taking a big cut and they know I didn’t have to, and now they don’t even want to talk to me,” Koontz said. “Before the contract, we all agreed to take cuts across the board, but the directors decided to pick and choose which positions would be reduced in pay. They shouldn’t have done it that way.”

Despite the difficulty, Koontz said she’s not going to allow anyone to take away her dignity.

“I’m gonna’ keep my head up, walk in and do my job the same way as I’ve done it for the last 28 years,” she said.

Koontz also brought several letters written by fellow cafeteria workers, although some individuals asked to remain anonymous when they were later contacted by The Sentinel. The letter writers expressed how much they enjoy working with the children in the schools, but they feel the school district has not treated them fairly and in a sense has told them they’re not worth the pay they used to receive.

Speaking on behalf of the custodial and maintenance workers were Barry Kinslow, chapter co-president, and Tony Conner, vice president. Both men said the union had offered concessions regarding vacation pay and some other benefits during the negotiations to help reduce costs, but the district then told them they would also have to take the pay reduction or risk having their jobs outsourced.

“We understand the importance of the district’s mission to provide the best education to our students,” Kinslow said. “But if you recognize the need to cut costs and save money, it is highly irresponsible to continue giving raises to some but reduce wages for others.”

As an example, Kinslow referred to the 2.4 percent raise the teachers received in their most recent contract, as well as the 2.23 percent increase approved for district administrators in 2012. He also referred to payroll documents he said he obtained from the district administration that list the 2008 and 2011 salary figures for school principals and administrators, who are non-union employees under Act 93.

The 2011 document lists 19 non-union employees who receive annual salaries and benefits in the $100,000 range; two in the $90,000 range; one in the $80,000 range; three in the $70,000 range; five in the $60,000 range; seven in the $50,000 range and one in the $30,000 range.

Kinslow said by his calculations that adds up to 38 non-union employees receiving more than $3 million in salaries and benefits each year who will get a 2.23 percent increase, while 71 custodial and cafeteria workers are taking pay cuts ranging from as much as 9 to 17 percent. He did note that Superintendent James Estep opted not to receive a pay increase for the current budget year.

“Mr. Estep is right about Gov. Corbett slashing $1 billion from education in the last few years,” Kinslow said. “But when you look at the math, this situation just isn’t right. We’re all in the same boat, and we all need to bleed together.”

Conner took issue with some of the statements made by the superintendent in The Sentinel’s Oct. 11 article.

“Mr. Estep said the custodial workers receiving the pay cut ‘perform cleaning duties only,’ but that statement is not accurate. We do so much more than that,” Conner said. “We shovel snow, cut grass, and unload delivery trucks. When kids are sick, we clean their vomit up off the floor.”

Koontz expressed her agreement with Conner’s statements, saying the custodians are much more than a clean-up crew.

“They become friends to our kids. When the kids come into the school, they know they’re in good hands when they see these guys there,” she said. “When our kids are sad or have a problem, these guys go to them and try to help, and we have the comfort of knowing they have a security clearance, too.”

Koontz went on to say that the cafeteria workers also develop a personal connection with the students.

“We know these kids. We’re preparing a good, cooked meal for them each day – not just a Lunchable – and we’re serving it with a smile on our faces,” she said. “We want the parents to know just how much we appreciate their children when they come through the serving line each day.”

Conner said the two-year process the union and the district went through to arrive at the new contract was a mentally, physically and emotionally draining experience for many of the workers.

“We’ve been squeezed so much, now I just want to be left alone. I don’t want to hear the word ‘outsource’ anymore. I just want to do my job,” he said.

Kinslow said the thing he finds most disheartening is that the pay cuts included in the new contract were unnecessary.

“The money was already in the budget for these employees, and there was no property tax increase. They (the school board) didn’t need to do it; they wanted to do it,” he said. “How do you rationalize making the only cut to the lowest paid employees in the district? It just irritates me.”