New Contract Adds 32 Cooks To Schools

Melissa Bailey File PhotoShirley Bookert stands to win promotion to new, higher-paying job as a school cook, according to the terms of a labor contract overwhelmingly ratified by school cafeteria workers Monday.

School cafeteria workers in UNITE HERE Local 217 voted 95 to 6 to approve a labor agreement with the school board, according to union organizer Cristina Cruz-Uribe.

The six-year agreement includes wage freezes between 2010 and 2013, then raises for all workers, retroactive to July 2013. It expands the number of cooks by 32, placing a “cook/lead worker” in all 44 city schools. In return, workers agreed to switch to a new health care plan that saves the city money, and to cut back new employees’ eligibility for retiree medical benefits.

The deal caps a year-long public campaign, in which a fresh group of workers got involved in their union and lobbied for better jobs and more fresh cooking in the schools—not just re-heating of pre-cooked meals. Click here and here to read more.

“It’s a positive thing all around, and it’s a relief,” said Jasanea Hernandez, a cafeteria worker who sat on her union’s negotiating committee.

“It’s a long time coming,” said worker Bookert. She and fellow workers have gone without raises for the past four years as negotiations continued.

The deal was worked out through negotiations, not binding arbitration, and against the backdrop of a school budget deficit driven in large part by the school food services budget, which last year ran up $2.8 million in expenses beyond its $10.2 million in revenue.

Medical savings will offset wage increases, resulting in a net savings for the school board, according to Will Clark, the schools chief operating officer. He said the contract will create a more “efficient” system in which workers in each school take more responsibility for cutting down on waste and increasing reimbursement for meals served.

“We’re well on the way to having last year’s budget issues be the exception to the rule,” Clark said. “We project to be under-budget this year, and to continue that trend in the future.”

The agreement, which still needs approval by the school board, is technically divided into two parts: One extends the prior contract, which expired on July 1, 2010, by three years, with no changes. A second, three-year contract begins July 1, 2013 and ends June 30, 2016.

The union and management also agreed to a memorandum of understanding that would create a pilot program for expanding the amount of cooking in schools—so long as it is paid for by outside grants or is otherwise cost-neutral. Click here to read an outline of the contract and the memorandum of understanding.

Here are some highlights of the deal:

Pay Raises, Promotions

Most of the workers in the union are “general workers” in the cafeteria, who reheat and serve food. They make $16.44 per hour. Seven people are “assistant cooks,” making $17.85. Fourteen are cooks, who make $19.16. One lead cook oversees production at the district’s central kitchen for $21.41 per hour. The cooks, and all workers who put in at least 20 hours a week, get full health care and retirement benefits.

During negotiations, the union pushed the school district to create more cook positions—both as a way to create more high-earning jobs for women who are the main breadwinners in their households, and as a way to promote more fresh cooking in the schools.

One major focus of the campaign was to increase the number of schools that do cooking from scratch. Right now, only 12 schools have “production kitchens,” where workers actually cook food. The rest of the schools reheat food that is cooked in the district’s central kitchen. The district has been resistant to expanding the number of production kitchens, because high schools with production kitchens are among the most costly to maintain.

The contract does not call for creating more production kitchens. But it does create the opportunity for workers to take on more leadership and high-paying jobs. The contract scraps the “assistant cook” job. It creates 32 new “cook” jobs, so that all 44 schools have one.

The cook position will be redefined as a “cook/lead worker.” The job would entail managing the rest of the kitchen staff, as well as using computer systems to track inventory and sales. That will create a lead person in every school, and make every school responsible for meeting its production and budget-balancing goals, Clark said. The change in job description gives schools more flexibility as to what workers can do at each school, and makes it easier to move people between schools, according to Clark.

Assistant cooks will be able to apply for lead cook jobs in schools that currently have warming kitchens, through a bidding process outlined in the contract.

The contract calls for wage freezes for the first three years after the contract expired, followed by 3-percent raises for all workers, retroactive to July 1, 2013, followed by 3-percent and 2-percent raises.

Winning raises like that in a down economy was a victory for the union.

Three-quarters of workers are the main breadwinners for their families, according to a report the union compiled as part of its campaign.


Following a trend among municipal unions, the union agreed to cut down longterm costs for the city by restricting eligibility for retiree medical benefits.

Right now, workers have to meet the Rule of 80 in order to get retiree medical benefits. That means the sum of their age and the number of years of service must total at least 80. The new contract would stipulate that new workers would have to have at least 25 years of service to qualify. That change was consistent with the city clerical and management unions, Clark noted.

Workers also agreed to switch from a self-insured medical plan to a premium-based plan that’s expected to be cheaper for the city, according to Clark. The new plan is a not-for-profit plan run by Anthem Blue Cross as part of UNITE HERE’s Health and Welfare Fund. Workers will put in 10 percent of the monthly premium, comparable to what they’re paying now, Clark said.

Clark called the move a “significant” benefit to the city and school board, and some good “out-of-the-box thinking” by the union.

Cruz-Uribe said the agreement will allow workers to “maintain affordable medical insurance.”

Benefits for pensions, sick days and longevity pay are unaffected.

Scratch Cooking Quest

Labor and management also signed off on a memorandum of understanding to create a pilot program to bring in more fresh cooking into city schools—so long as it is “cost-neutral” to the city. That’s an important condition.

The school district has earned national praise for its efforts to bring more fresh food and scratch cooking to schools. Schools have cut out fried food, Doritos, and chocolate milk and added cooking classes, whole-wheat pancakes, and baked chicken. All schools now have salad bars. These efforts led former food services head Chef Tim Cipriano to be named a White House “champion for change.”

Still, cafeteria workers argue that the schools have a long way to go. Too many kids toss out the food because it isn’t fresh or appealing, they argue.

It’s not clear what the fresh-food pilot program would look like. A new working group including labor and management and a member of the Board of Alders would apply for outside grants to pay for it. One option is for central kitchen to leave more of the cooking to the schools. For example, cooks at central kitchen could send “kits” of spice packets and measured ingredients to school-based staff, who would then put them together.

Bookert called the development “good for us and for the children.”

“They’ll eat more and waste less,” she said.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 17, 2013  6:16pm

Right now, workers have to meet the Rule of 80 in order to get retiree medical benefits. That means the sum of their age and the number of years of service must total at least 80. The new contract would stipulate that new workers would have to have at least 25 years of service to qualify. That change was consistent with the city clerical and management unions, Clark noted.

How come the Park workers could not get the same deal.Remember the park workers were sold out by Judas Goat union alderman who voted to take away there medical retirement benfits.

posted by: Noteworthy on December 17, 2013  8:33pm

Sink Your Teeth Into This Notes:

1. There is entirely too much pre-packaged food at our schools - even the fruit comes wrapped and in a plastic or Styrofoam container.

2. Nice that we have more cooks - Are they going to get to cook? The pre-cooked, pre-packaged stuff is almost inedible. 90% of the time, my daughter doesn’t eat the lunch. There is so much waste.

3. Wonder why the food budget is over by 3.5 million?  Re-read points one and two. And then repeat again. Pretty soon, you’re at a deficit of $3.5 million.

posted by: NewHavenTaxTooHigh on December 18, 2013  2:14am

Rule of 80: So, if you begin working with the City when you are 30 and work for 25 years until you are 55, then you can retire with 25 years of service and receive a full pension and medical benefits. So, if you live to be 80 (not uncommon these days), you wind up getting paid and receiving benefits for 50 years (Age 30 to 80) while working only 25 years (Age 30 to 55). And this is considered a good deal for the City?

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on December 18, 2013  10:08am

Having eaten way more NHPS school food than any adult should, I will say that, with a few impressively disgusting exceptions, much of the cooked stuff is not that bad. 

But, probably in the hope of keeping produce from going bad, the schools buy and serve hard, green, unripe fruit and vegetables.  We want the kids to learn to enjoy fresh, healthy food, but the melon, tomatoes and cucumbers are hard as a rock and taste just like one—absolutely inedible and misleading kids into believing that fruits and vegetables are tasteless. 

Also, the only option for vegetarians and kids keeping kosher or halal is frequently cold salad and maybe a roll.  The school system could save a lot of money and be more green and healthy by switching to hot vegetarian meals every day.  If the kids don’t like chickpeas, well, they don’t like the teriyucky chicken balls either, so nothing lost.

Maybe having a cook on site will help with some of these issues or just give us someone to complain to!