Sun. May 22nd, 2022
Schools are struggling to feed kids lunch and Biden has a solution: Cafeteria workers should be full-time and unionized
  • Biden’s administration says school lunch workers should be full-time so they can be part of a union.
  • It’s part of a report released on Monday on how to increase worker power in the US.
  • School cafeterias are dealing with labor shortages that make it hard for schools to feed students.

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A school in Ohio ordered pizza to feed students. Parents in Minnesota volunteered to work lunch shifts amid a labor-shortage “crisis.” 

The Biden administration has an idea: Schools should hire cafeteria workers as full-time employees.

The recommendation comes from the Biden administration’s first report, released on Monday, by a new task force meant to bolster both union membership and worker organizing. 

It’s a measure that could cut down on labor shortages in the sector and give another frontline group the power to bargain for benefits as a collective unit. The suggestion shows how Biden — who has said he wants to be the “most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history” — may be rethinking the low-wage work that supported much of the economy pre-pandemic. In recent months, low wages, unpredictable schedules, and a lack of benefits seem to have destabilized many service jobs as workers quit en masse in search of a better deal.

The task force is recommending that, when it comes to school cafeteria workers, the Department of Agriculture explore how it can use its “purchasing power with subgrantees and their contractors to employ full-time workers in the school lunch and child nutrition programs.”

The Atlantic reported that many cafeteria workers have “short-hour positions,” where they technically don’t work full time. That can disqualify them from receiving full-time benefits, such as health insurance. 

“The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to provide for USDA-administered school lunch and child nutrition programs and has the discretion to enact requirements necessary to carry out such programs in order to safeguard the public interest, including the nutritional needs of children,” the task force’s report said. “This authority should be exercised to ensure that subgrantees and their contractors retain a stable and high-quality workforce of full-time employees.”

Across the economy, many sectors are dealing with so-called labor shortages, although data on who’s leaving suggests workers may see it as more of a wage shortage.

The task force’s report said that using full-time employees would “likely ensure uninterrupted service delivery of food services.” Moving workers to full time could also increase the union-membership-rate density since full-time workers were more likely to be union members. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the union membership for full-time workers in 2021 was 11.1%, compared to 6.1% for part-time workers. Workers who were members of unions made almost $200 more a week compared to their peers who weren’t union members.

In 2021, union membership fell again, following a decades-long trend. Of the workers in occupations related to food preparation and serving, 3.5% were represented by unions.

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