At her job, Spear had to wear a mask and change her gloves every half hour, but toward the end of the school year, her supervisors stopped checking. Another woman in the cafeteria stopped showing up, because she was immunocompromised. Food-service workers in other cafeterias around the country tested positive for the coronavirus, but as far as she’s aware, no one at her job did. Then, in July, her employer laid off Spear and three other workers.
Read: What are parents supposed to do with their kids?
Spear’s situation isn’t unique. This spring and summer, thousands of K–12 cafeteria workers across the country continued working at schools that were closed to students, making sure that the millions of children who rely on free or reduced-price school meals were still getting fed. As schools navigate whether or not to reopen for in-person classes in the fall, and as COVID-19 continues to spread, schools are encountering outbreaks literally the same day that they open. There’s a fair bit of evidence that cafeteria workers, as adults, are more at risk from the pandemic than the children they serve. Yet their safety has gone largely unmentioned. And considering the poor working conditions, low wages, and lack of benefits that have characterized their job for years, cafeteria workers stand to take one of the biggest hits if more schools have outbreaks.
For as long as federal funding for school lunch programs has existed, the labor that makes those meals possible has been low-paid and underappreciated. “A lot of teachers were forming unions in the 1960s and ’70s, but there was a reluctance for cafeteria workers to do the same,” Jennifer Gaddis, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, told me. “There was this idea that you’re taking money away from free-lunch programs for kids. But historically, there’s never been a lot of national or state-level support within school nutrition, until recently.” Cafeteria workers often work in short-hour positions, following a heat-and-serve model with prepackaged meals, instead of working full time, meaning that they don’t qualify for benefits such as health insurance. “You’re getting a lot of part-time workers, because you only need people during those peak hours of lunch service,’ Gaddis said. “So cafeteria workers are hustling—they have other jobs, they work elsewhere. Sometimes school cafeteria staff don’t always feel as if they are respected members of the school community; they’re completely ignored.”
Many workers in other service jobs are unionized. But the food-service industry overall is one of the least union-represented labor forces in the country. In the past, some of the private firms that dominate the industry have misclassified employees as contractors in order to pay them less. This happens even in the mess halls of power: In 2016, Capitol Hill cafeteria workers received $1 million in back pay after the Department of Labor found that they’d been denied the minimum hourly wage and overtime. No federal mandates govern paid leave or sick days, although certain cities and states have their own laws. According to Gaddis, many cafeteria workers, like other essential workers, are the primary breadwinners for their family, meaning that the pressure to go to work, even when sick, could help spread the virus if an employee is infected. And some cafeteria kitchens are too cramped for workers to be six feet away from one another. “There’s great personal risk to themselves, and others, because of the service they’re doing as essential workers,” Christine C. Caruso, a director of the undergraduate program in public health at the University of Saint Joseph, in Connecticut, told me.