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Grievance Blocks After-School Snacks

September 28, 2005

The Hartford school system has stopped providing snacks to hundreds of children in after-school programs because of a union grievance by food service workers who are demanding they be paid to distribute them.

While union officials say they are simply asking the district to honor their contract, school officials say they cannot afford the additional labor costs and have stopped providing snacks to about 1,000 children in a variety of after-school programs.

If the school district does not find a way around an order by a three-member arbitration panel in the next few weeks, an additional 1,200 children could be affected when Saturday and weekday tutorials for the Connecticut Mastery Tests begin in October.

"We want to feed these children, but the union leadership is not letting us," said district spokesman Terry D'Italia. "We're in a bind and we've got to figure out an alternative."

In the meantime, some community organizations running the after- school programs for the district have purchased snacks on their own. But organizers say they cannot afford to continue doing that.

The school district has used a federal grant to pay for the prepackaged nibbles -- cheese and crackers or peanut butter crackers, cereal and milk or juice, which are handed out by program personnel.

If food service workers were called in to work, school officials say they would have to pay the workers overtime for a minimum of three hours, which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

"The grant is very specific and it does not contemplate food service workers being paid to serve the food," D'Italia said. "That would not be feasible."

The arbitration panel on Sept. 7 sided with the food service workers in Local 566 of Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who argued that if snacks are going to be served by school employees, they should be the ones to do it.

While the years-old grievance specifically named the "Super Saturday" program, which prepares youngsters to take the CMT, the district's lawyer, Ann Bird, said it applies to all programs in which teachers, aides, principals or security officers distribute the prepackaged snacks.

Larry Dorman, a spokesman for Council 4, said that the fact that the administration forced the matter to arbitration shows an unwillingness to negotiate a settlement. He said it is the workers who have been wronged here.

"Somebody said `the heck with the contract' and that's not good labor relations," Dorman said. "It's most disingenuous to pit the workers against the children when all the administration has to do is respect the rules."

If the scope of the work were deemed to be outside of the work guaranteed to food service workers by contract, Dorman said, "then the arbitration panel would have ruled against us."

In pressing the grievance, the union noted that the district had found funds to pay teachers, security guards and aides to staff the enrichment and educational programs.

Kathy Evans, program development director for Organized Parents Make a Difference, a community-based organization that oversees after-school programs for about 700 youngsters, said that as soon as her group realized that youngsters would not get snacks, her employees rushed out and bought food.

Some of the children eat lunch as early as 10 a.m., she said, and it is just not reasonable to expect them to wait until dinner to eat. The group offers such programs as dance, homework tutorials and yoga.

"We know how hungry they are after school," Evans said. "They certainly can't concentrate and they'd be miserable without something in their stomachs.

"I think it's terrible that because of adult issues, the kids aren't getting snacks after school."

Still, she said, her budget was not designed to buy snacks and she is urging parents to send snacks to school with their youngsters.

Some parents may comply, Evans said, but some cannot afford to provide snacks consistently. At Burns Elementary School, for example, youngsters have the option to take home a backpack filled with food for dinner if they need it, Evans said. Parents who cannot afford to put the dinner on the table probably cannot afford snacks, either, she said.

Bird said it is unclear whether the arbitration panel's ruling will allow nonschool district employees, such as Evans' organization, to distribute the snacks.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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