Behind PPS support staff’s campaign for higher wages

Ella Morofsky, Staff Writer

Earning between $9 and $11 per hour, Portage Public Schools support staff have long been under-compensated for their efforts. Their plight officially came to light on January 10, when WWMT broke the news that they were publicly seeking higher wages. 

Leading the reform effort is Lake Center Elementary lunchroom supervisor Virginia Norris.  “People are tired of working just as hard as anyone else without getting the respect, pay, and benefits we deserve,” she explained. “With the cost of living increasing, we cannot afford our daily needs.” 

Norris has been working for the Portage Public School district for three years, during which time her wages have only increased by forty two cents. For comparison, Norris worked for the Charlotte Public School district for seven years before moving down here. Charlotte is a much smaller school district with fewer financial resources than Portage, but their support staff are compensated at a higher rate. “I got paid two dollars more an hour working for Charlotte Public Schools,” she stated.

As lunchroom supervisor, Norris does many things throughout her workday. Her morning starts by doing inventory in the kitchen and getting the lunchroom ready for the students. When students start coming in, she has to help in the kitchen to serve them. Once the students get settled in their seats, she has to monitor them. When lunch is over, Norris dismisses them for recess and has to help them with coats, hats, and gloves. After taking care of about 100 children at a time, Norris, along with just one other lunchroom supervisor, has two minutes between each grade to get the lunchroom clean and ready again. “I do that process seven times,” she explained. Norris works four hours a day, five days a week.

While the low pay issue has long been an issue, the pandemic put a pause on pursuing a raise.  Despite the fact that the school support staff did not receive any kind of extra compensation for being essential workers in a high-risk environment, “Nobody wanted to ruffle any feathers,” Norris explained. “But being quiet, we will get no change. We have to speak up.” 

Norris’ Lake Center Elementary lunchroom supervising counterpart, Taylor Raifsnider, shares her colleagues’ concerns. Raifsnider started working for the school district in September of 2021. Before working for the school district, she worked at a daycare for a year. “I am a cafeteria supervisor, so we help the kids get seated at lunch and clean up after them and we assist the younger kids with opening their lunches,” Raifsnider explained. “I feel that with as much as we actually do, the pay could go up. The children are safe in our hands. We deserve to get paid more!”

Reporting on the national average pay for lunch supervisors varies widely among sources (between $15 and $20 per hour), and Michigan’s average is even lower at $13 per hour. Portage’s wages fall below all of those figures. At $11 per hour, lunch supervisors are among the lowest-paid employees in the district. 

According to Director of Human Resources Brad Galin, the district is conscious of the issue and committed to improving the situation. “We have continually tried to raise them up,” he explained. “With $10.50 last year just as a reference, we’ve been able to bring them up and intend to do so again.” The district is also 

waiting on approval to be able to use federal grant dollars to be able to raise the pay for supervisors again, but they don’t know when or if they will get the approval. 

Wages are not the only concern on Norris’ mind: she and her colleagues would also like to get healthcare benefits. Galin explains that this is unlikely due to their part-time status.  “Under something called the Affordable Care Act, which is sometimes called Obama Care, anyone who works thirty hours or more, we offer benefits to,” Galin explained. At 20 hours per week, lunch supervisors fall outside of this metric. 

There are, however, some jobs that are just below that thirty hour mark that do get benefits, like parapros and bus drivers. Bus drivers are some of the highest paid support employees in the Portage Public School district. The average pay for bus drivers is $16, which is right below the state average of $16.68. Along with the pay, bus drivers also get benefits and paid holidays. “I work a 25-30 hour week,” shared PPS bus driver Lynda Stewart. “I transport 5 year olds up to 18 year olds. I’m transporting about 30 – 40 elementary children, and anywhere from 20 – 35 middle school and high school students each day.” 

Portage serves about 8,700 students through eight elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools. The size of the district can be helpful in the staff payment equation: Galin explains that the district’s funding comes from something called a “foundational allowance,” which comes from the state and depends on the number of students that are part of the school district. 

While the district indicates that there is hope for a future pay raise, Norris is concerned that it might not happen soon enough or be large enough. She believes that many employees are planning to quit either this year or next year. “We could go flip burgers for $14-$15 an hour,” she said. She is willing to wait this year, but if her wages do not increase before the start of next school year, she plans to leave the district in search of other employment. 

Portage is currently in significant need of food service workers. For information or to apply, click here.