The Orleans Parish School Board voted unanimously last week to raise food service workers’ minimum wage to $15 an hour, a step in the right direction for employees and the city, workers’ rights groups said.

But the requirement doesn’t apply to workers at charter schools that don’t use school district employees for food service. Only 13 of the city’s 87 public schools rely on the district for food service. Nearly all the others use private contractors.

“I think it was great, and great effort by OPSB to come out in front of this issue,” LaTanja Silvester said in a phone interview Monday.

Silvester is the spokeswoman for the local chapter of Service Employees International Union. They have collective bargaining agreements with food service contractors Sodexo and Chartwells, but she said neither agreement approaches a $15/hour starting wage.

The School Board’s decision affects 66 district employees who work in food service across 13 schools, according to a district spokeswoman.

“We have roughly 350 other members who work for private sector food service provides,” Silvester said.

This summer, the state-run Recovery School District transferred its New Orleans schools to the Orleans Parish school district. For the first time since Hurricane Katrina, most of the city’s schools are now locally run. But because they are charter schools — run by independent volunteer boards — the district’s control is limited and does not extend to day-to-day operational decisions like staffing and pay.

Last week, members of Our Voice Nuestra Voz, Step Up Louisiana and SEIU implored board members to approve the revised salary scale for food service workers. The number is part of a nationwide effort to raise the minimum wage for service workers.

At the meeting, district and charter employees told their stories. 

“This is my sixth school year and I only make $11 an hour. I can’t live off of that.”—woman speaking at Orleans Parish School Board meeting

“This is my sixth school year and I only make $11 an hour,” one woman in a purple SEIU shirt told board members. “I can’t live off of that. I’m tired of telling my kids ‘no,’ or ‘I can’t’ because I can’t afford the activities they want to join to keep them off the streets.”

Another worker listed off the numerous roles cafeteria workers play.

“We are also known as the ‘cafeteria ladies’ and that is a title I hold with honor,” she said.

“We serve, we clean, we’re time managers, self-starters, team players, overseers of daily operations. We specialize in premise sanitation and hygiene protocol, pertinent to our environment,” she said. “We are record-keepers and monitor compliance with food health and safety regulations. And we are here to implore to you of the need for the $15 minimum wage for the food service workers.”

Mary Moran, the executive director of Our Voice Nuestra Voz, a parent advocacy group, echoed them. She said her organization learned that several cafeteria workers were working two jobs to make ends meet.

“They were moonlighting to care for older folks and working in fast-food restaurants,” she said. “They were still afraid to come and speak before you because they were afraid of losing their jobs.”

School Board member Ben Kleban said it was one worker in particular who came before the board this summer that prompted board members to ask questions.

“It’s when you come to the mic and make sure that we are paying attention to the way our decisions are affecting people that we’re at our best,” he said. “I’ll confess, we get this big binder of paper and we’re a little removed from what’s going on on the ground sometimes. And it might not have been without one of you coming to the mic and expressing a heartfelt vulnerable story about the importance of getting that salary scale up.”

Private companies provide low-wage competition

FirstLine Schools runs six charter schools in New Orleans. Rebekah Cain, the network’s executive director of operations, said they tried to include a living wage in its last round of food service contracts.

“We actually did [put out a call for bids] back in 2017 that was for specifically for food service that included a base living wage,” Cain explained. “We got one response, and that was only for half of our schools.”

“We absolutely support a living wage for all the folks that work in our schools whether they are directly employed with us or not,” she said. “We tried to address this issue last year and were met with difficulty.”

FirstLine’s 2017 request for proposals shows a required minimum wage of $11.71 for food service workers. But, Cain said, they kept their previous provider, Chartwells, after no group bid on service for all schools.

Silvester said the starting wage for a food service worker at Chartwells is $9.45 an hour.

“While we can certainly specific things in the RFP, we can’t require people to bid on that,” she said.

Cain said they work with a provider because bringing the service in-house would be too complicated. “Part of that is because we want to work with experts.”

Silvester said she worked with FirstLine CEO Jay Altman when the network was working on raising private service provider wages.

“He’s done all that he can from his perspective,” she said.

“I commend him for his efforts,” Silvester said. “But part of the problem is if there are other low-wage players in the game, it’s difficult for school systems and individuals to put pressure on those employers to pay a better wage.”

“I commend him for his efforts. But part of the problem is if there are other low-wage players in the game, it’s difficult for school systems and individuals to put pressure on those employers to pay a better wage.”—LaTanja Silvester, SEIU spokeswoman

“So now what OPSB has done is set the standard,” she said.

The Lens contacted several of the city’s largest charter school networks for comment on this story. ReNEW Schools and KIPP did not respond to a request for comment. Crescent City Schools referred us to their food vendors, Fresh Food Factor and Sodexo. The companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely said the network’s schools use two vendors, Sodexo and SLA, who set their own wages. Sodexo has a contract with the Service Employees International Union. The document, posted on the union’s website, says its food service workers start at $9.55 per hour.

“We will consult with our vendors regarding living wage,” McKneely said. “We do consult with all of our vendors regarding living wages.”

Charter schools and other low-wage workers

The raise won’t affect most school food service workers in city schools because charter schools don’t have to follow all district policies.

Some charter schools contract with the district’s child nutrition department. Those workers will receive the raise because they are employed by the district.

Those charter schools are Benjamin Franklin Elementary Math and Science, Mary Bethune Elementary Literature/Technology, Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, Edward Hynes Charter School, Lusher Charter School, Robert Russa Moton Charter School, James Singleton Charter School, Crescent Leadership Academy, Warren Easton Senior High School, Benjamin Franklin High School and the state-run New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Cypress Academy and McDonogh 35 Senior High School are run directly by the district.

Last week, Step Up co-director Ben Zucker thanked the board for the vote but asked them to look even further to other district workers and charter schools.

“I hope the work you are doing with the direct-run food service sets an example for the charters and the contracted food service,” he said. “I also think it would be awesome if we could do this for custodial workers and all the rest of the low-wage school staff.”

Kleban agreed.

“I also want to acknowledge that even though we figured this out for food service workers — and that was the large majority of people making below $15 an hour before this — we’re still not at 100 percent,” Kleban said. “We’re getting close but we still have a number of people on our staff that aren’t there yet.”

He implored Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. to make $15 an hour the minimum wage for all district workers by next year’s budget, if not sooner.

That’s something FirstLine was able to make progress on for for its janitorial contractor, Cain said.

Custodians went from making the $7.25 per hour minimum wage to $12.46 per hour, she said. Supervisors now make $17.35 per hour.

Cain acknowledged it wasn’t hitting the $15 mark but said it was a step in the right direction.

“It was a commitment we were happy to make.”

Kleban and other board members unanimously approved the hike to $15.

“I’m proud to be on a board that really serves as a model for other public entities in the state, as well as other charter organizations in our community to try to make sure this is a priority for them as well,” Kleban said.

Silvester applauded the School Board and hopes they’ll raise wages for all support staff.

“We believe there has to be a larger emphasis on providing better wages to support workers in the school system and better working conditions and benefits as well,” she said.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...