School Food Service Workers Shortage

Sharon Eburg serves lunch to a long line of students in the Urbana Middle School cafeteria Thursday afternoon. She is joined by one other worker in an area that should be manned by four employees. Eburg has been a cafeteria worker for FCPS for nearly 30 years. She’s also president of FASSE, the union that represents support staff in FCPS.

When the 12:45 bell rang at Urbana Middle School on Wednesday, signaling the beginning of eighth grade lunch, Sharon Eburg took a deep breath.

“That’s our cue to rock and roll,” she said, rising from her seat.

Within three minutes, the line of students waiting for food stretched the entire length of the cafeteria. Eburg was the only person serving them. Her sole coworker, Linda Hollins, manned the register.

In a typical year, they’d have double the staff on hand.

Clad in a cheery Halloween-themed blouse, Eburg greeted each student brightly. “Hi, honey,” she’d say, her hands flying over fast-emptying trays of mozzarella sticks and chicken patties. “What would you like?”

For 27 years, Eburg has doled out lunches to Frederick County Public Schools students. Now, she also serves as president of the union that represents the system’s support employees. Bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, instructional assistants and more than 150 other occupations are under her purview.

In her nearly three decades of experience, Eburg said, she’s never faced a year as tough as this one.

“Employees are just worn out,” she said. “I don’t know of any school that is fully staffed like they used to be.”

Food Service Worker Shortage

A large line of Urbana Middle School students wait their turn to buy lunch in the schools cafeteria Thursday afternoon. The kitchen is manned by only two employees, less than half that is allocated. The Frederick County Public School system is having difficulty filling vacancies in a number of areas in addition to food service.

FCPS had 226 vacancies in support staff roles as of Friday, system spokesman Brandon Oland wrote in an email. For Eburg and the other workers, the shortage has meant longer days and, often, a hefty emotional toll.

“We feel like we’re invisible,” Eburg said.

The district’s employment numbers are based on full-time equivalency, meaning that an unfilled part-time position could count as just half a vacancy. Using that metric, Oland said the district was short 66 special education instructional assistants, 23 custodians and 19 bus drivers — most of whom drive at least three routes per day.

Sign language interpreters, secretaries, food service workers and maintenance staff are also in short supply.

Despite offering hiring bonuses and working to extend community outreach, Oland said, the district doesn’t have enough applicants.

“We are making a concerted effort to make sure we are filling those employment gaps that we have,” said FCPS public affairs director Eric Louérs-Phillips. “It’s important to continue to support our staff, who are part of the FCPS community.”

The problem is far from unique to Frederick County. Just across the Potomac River in Jefferson County, West Virginia, officials announced Wednesday that schools would close three hours early every Friday due to staffing woes.

Staff needed the extra unencumbered time each week to “conduct all planning, deep cleaning, class material preparation, IEP/SAT meetings, etc.” that they were struggling to complete otherwise, officials wrote in a document explaining the decision.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent available data, more than 460,000 public education jobs were open in July of this year, compared with less than half that amount at the same point in 2020.

Shortages in a handful of roles have a “domino effect” across an entire school, Eburg said, forcing staff to pile extra work onto their existing duties.

FCPS teachers, for example, have been donning hair nets to help serve lunches, said Frederick County Teachers Association President Missy Dirks. Long lunch lines give students less time to eat, which gives custodians less time to clean up.

Elaine Crawford, an officer with the Frederick Association of School Support Employees, said some FCPS central office staff with commercial drivers licenses have started driving school buses on the side. And still, nearly every day, some buses across the county are delayed by 30 minutes or more as drivers are forced to cover extra routes.

School Bus Driver Shortage

The afternoon bus line departs from Catoctin High School in Thurmont Friday afternoon. Frederick County Public Schools is experiencing a support staff shortage, including having not enough bus drivers.

That means teachers have to stay past their contracted hours to supervise students during dismissal, Dirks said.

Tonya Albaugh, a custodian at Sabillasville Elementary School, said the staffing struggles have required her to go in on Saturdays, working for free to finish the tasks she couldn’t get to during the week.

The post-pandemic morale among her colleagues is low, she said.

“We’re all depressed,” Albaugh said. “It’s horrible.”

Nonteaching staff make up half of the K-12 workforce, which numbers 6 million people across the country, according to a 2014 study by the Thomas Fordham Institute.

“They’re the first to open up the schools, so they work very early in the mornings. They are the ones closing down the schools, so they’re working at night,” Crawford said. “And during the day, they are doing millions and zillions of things.”

Support employees are paid far less than teachers, on average: While the median pay in May 2020 for kindergarten and elementary teachers was $41,950, the median pay for a K-12 teaching assistant was $28,900, according to the BLS.

And people in hourly roles like food service and transportation often make even less. Eburg said people in her department usually start off working three hours per day at $13 per hour. Recruitment is difficult, she said, when her colleagues realize they could make $17 per hour or more at a local gas station.

But both Crawford and Eburg said the reasons for the shortage likely extend beyond the issue of pay.

“If [FCPS] had all the money in the world … would that get us the drivers or fill the shortage area? I’m not so sure that’s true,“ Crawford said. “Outside of the school system, almost every corporation, every business, is scrambling to hire employees.”

The district is hosting a job fair next week, and it has advertised $1,500 signing bonuses in recent months.

But in the meantime, some overworked support employees are nearing their limits. Albaugh said she’s counting down the days until she can leave her custodial position and begin nursing classes at Frederick Community College.

During a five-minute break between lunch shifts on Wednesday, Eburg sat in an office decorated with inspirational quotes and pictures of flamingos, answering emails.

More and more, she said, she’s receiving messages from workers who aren’t sure how much longer they can last.

“They’re tired,” she said simply. “They are discouraged.”

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek

(20) comments

MrFrederick

There are too many people in the country who are consuming too much housing which drives up the cost of housing for everybody. Expensive housing is the prime reason why it is hard to subside on these wages. The problem is housing, not the wage. Raising wages across the board online exacerbates the problem because everything becomes more expensive and you don't have any more buying power, just higher prices.

MrSniper

I suppose if housing was cheaper people could get by on less. I suspect most people would continue to pass over low paying local jobs & commute to the higher one’s elsewhere & just pocket the difference.

senorris

Point the finger at corporations that bought up rental properties and raised the rent beyond the reach of many workers. Live-able wage is relative to how much corporate America charges people for everyday needs.

phydeaux994

I bet all the illegal aliens are working, nothing has changed for them throughout the pandemic. They don’t get unemployment or food stamps or housing subsidies.

mgoose806

No different in private sector. Supply chain, manufacturing etc all facing shortages. 55+ are leaving the workforce by the thousands. Public sector was 123,000 alone last month. Read yesterday’s jobs report. Has nothing to do with “COVID” pay or wages.

allie1115

I agree that these jobs and their benefit/wages are not good. Thank heavens for those that do work so hard to take care of others. I think though that it is oversimplified to merely state that the workforce across the board needs livable wages. Can the small businesses afford that? Do we truly understand how this will affect local and national economies? I can only thank those who do so much for so little.

I do remember working two jobs, sometimes three, to make ends meet. I don’t suggest that everyone have three jobs but I do believe we have the challenge of those who do not intrinsically have “work ethic.” That sometimes you need to work hard for what you want. It built moral character. I truly am grateful for those working so hard for others despite their challenges.

Awteam2021

We do know non-livable wages hurt families and perpetuate poverty leading to many of the social ills. I hope “work ethic” isn’t exploded as “cheap explodable labor”, just a step above slavery.

The economy is growing and leaving low wage workers further and further behind. It’s much harder to break out of living from paycheck to paycheck, always trying to stay ahead of the next unforeseen financial crisis, barely existing.

peterhassett

If small businesses can't afford to pay livable wages, then they don't deserve to exist

C.D.Reid

WHAT? Who the hell are you to say who, and who doesn't, "deserve" to exist? That's a liberal Leftist attitude if I ever heard one, and it's a pretty disgusting one at that.

shiftless88

Calm down, CD; he is just stating the laws of capitalism. If they cannot survive while paying a wage that working/society conditions dictate, then the should not survive artificially.

C.D.Reid

Call it what you want, shift, but he's still deciding who does, and does not, "deserve to exist." A blind man can read that in his comment.

bnick467

I don't know your age, but I'm in my early 50s and I also remember working two or three jobs. But it was NOT to make ends meet. I was able to afford the basics on my one full time job. Housing, food, utilities, transportation, etc. The second and third jobs I worked were so I could afford some luxury items and was able to put away more for retirement. I didn't HAVE to work those second or third jobs, it was my choice. If you need a second job because your one full time job doesn't pay you enough to afford rent, heat, and food, then wages are the problem.

Guy T. Ashton

If workers are holding out for better wages, what are they doing now to pay the bills and eat? I can’t imagine unemployment provides a better wage.

Awteam2021

In America, nearly 11 million children are poor. That’s 1 in 7 kids, who make up almost one-third of all people living in poverty in this country. More than 4 in 10 children live in a household struggling to meet basic expenses. They are mostly dependent on their parents (guardians) income and social programs. Maybe poor people are rebelling by not going back to jobs that pay unlivable wages? When you have nothing, what’s there to lose?

LAR1

The answer is simple - do not have kids until you can afford them. If you have kids before you can afford them, you will never have the time to advance your skills and therefore get a better wage.

Awteam2021

Lar1, Isn’t that what choice is about?

bpsws

There are no benefits for the special education assistants and I presume for many of the other support positions. Who is willing to work for only $13/hr and be abused daily?

laurie_mactaggart

This freight train has been careening out of control for a long time. The pandemic has allowed everyone to rethink what they are willing bide at work. Few people are willing to be looked at as a servant, and bear the abusive behavior from students and the public. It’s going to continue until major changes are made to the present educational structure and atmosphere.

bnick467

Not just in education. The so-called "worker shortage" should more appropriately referred to as a "wage shortage". There are plenty of people willing to work, but there are no people willing to work for less than a living wage.

Plumbum

Especially with the cost of gas. What they pay in gas to drive to and fro is almost their wages after taxes

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