It was a coincidence that the odor of gas drove workers out of the Lawrence High School kitchen for a while Thursday morning, on the same day that they had planned to picket. But the stench obviously didn’t improve their situation.
“Since the kitchen remodel, this smell has been apparent and has been stinking throughout the school,” according to some workers who wanted to speak as a group rather than be individually identified. “This morning it just got so bad that one of our workers had to go to the ER.”
The workers and fellow members of the classified staff union held their second demonstration in as many weeks Thursday afternoon. Both efforts aimed to raise public awareness of understaffing and low wages that many PAL-CWA (Personnel Association of Lawrence – Communication Workers of America) members deal with.
LHS cafeteria workers, in particular, have spoken out about having too much to do and too few hands on deck.
“We can’t keep going at this pace. We have six people when we’re supposed to have 22. We feed 700 students at four buildings everyday,” staff members reported last week. “We do all the laundry for all the kitchens on this side of town and clean our own kitchen everyday. We also have to make deliveries to other schools on a daily basis. This is a crisis.”
Julie Boyle, a spokesperson for the district, said Thursday that Black Hills Energy staff members had isolated the gas odor issue to the LHS kitchen, where they detected no natural gas but slightly elevated readings of sulphur and carbon monoxide.
Staff members had encouraged one worker who had reported having a headache and feeling nauseated to go to the ER for a checkup, “which she did. Our staff checked up on her later, and she reported she was feeling fine,” Boyle said.
On the northwest corner of 19th and Louisiana Thursday afternoon, Tatyana Younger said she makes $12 an hour as a paraeducator, a wage she has worked three years to achieve — and a wage that barely pays her rent and utilities. Other paraeducators make even less.
“I know paras who come home from work with bite marks and scratches, who get hit in the face constantly,” Younger said. “That’s not $10-an-hour work. That’s not $12-an-hour work. … I know people (who) have worked in the district for 22 years and still make less than $15 and can’t feed their kids, so they have to work a second or third job. That’s really stressful for a lot of folks.”
The school district is unable to retain an adequate number of paraeducators and cafeteria staff because its wage offerings are too low, said Hannah Allison-Natale, paraeducator and president of PAL-CWA.
“So we know this is about wages, right? We can’t keep staff and … we can’t keep working in these conditions where we’re so short staffed, and we’re so underpaid because we’re doing the job of two or three people,” Allison-Natale said. “I think what we’d like to see happen, you know, is for the district to take seriously the situation we’re in, staffing-wise. We can’t keep going at this pace for the rest of the year. And we have to do something about wages.”
Among the couple of dozen protesters was Alkemy Roanoke, 25.
“Without these people, there is no school,” Roanoke said.
Santiago Vasquez, a KU student, said it was disheartening that the school district is unable or unwilling to provide more livable wages.
“I think it’s like, just really messed up … that a workplace doesn’t have the resources to hire enough people to make it so that someone can work there,” Vasquez said. “… If we want people to stay in our community and work here, we also have to give them conditions that are (sustainable).”
School district leadership and board members have launched free early childhood services for PAL-CWA members and increased incentive pay. They also set aside funding in the budget to raise the minimum starting hourly pay for PAL-CWA members to $9.70 from $9.43.
But a living wage for a single adult in Douglas County is $17.07 — about 1.75 times as much.
Younger said she is happy that many fast-food workers make higher wages, but it’s a bittersweet reality.
“I celebrate service workers who are at $15, because I know it’s not easy being customer-facing, yet it can be hard to have students tell me they make more than me at their first job than paras who have worked in the district for years,” she said. “I just think that for the work that gets done, we should be making competitive wages.”
Allison-Natale and Younger said they would like to see more people attend school board meetings, check in with school staff to see how they’re doing, and put pressure on the district to provide more livable wages for staff.
As for the gas and odor issues at LHS, Boyle said via email that “The issue in the LHS kitchen this morning was an imbalance between the exhaust fans pulling air out of the kitchen, including the sewer gas smell from dry floor drains, coupled with a lack of fresh air intake.
“Our staff is checking with contractors about the air intake working properly. The intake and exhaust should work in tandem to suck air out and pull fresh air in. The dry sewer vent, which was the cause of the smell, was fixed by pouring water into the drain.”
Boyle said the sewer gas smell in the kitchen was first reported to Facilities and Operations staff in early April, then once again in May, but staff had tracked and checked up on it. Boyle said they had not received any more reports of the odor until Wednesday.
— Jack Ritter, Chansi Long and Mackenzie Clark contributed to this report.