After months of bargaining and rallies outside schools, Portland Public Schools and an employees union have reached an agreement on one thing: the district’s nutrition service workers have worked hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, and deserve to be acknowledged and rewarded for it.

That acknowledgment comes in the form of a one-time, $1,000 payment to employees who helped distribute meals in schools over the last year.

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In a statement announcing the payment, the Service Employees International Union Local 503 called the bargaining year “challenging,” and said this one-time payment was a win for its members.

The school district said the payment is a way to honor the “unique contributions” from these employees, who worked in-person at meal sites around the district as schools were closed and fully remote. The district said nutrition service workers have served over 3.5 million meals since the beginning of the pandemic.

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At the school board meeting this past Tuesday, SEIU Local 503 officer and Jackson Middle School Head Custodian Greg Meyers called these employees the “face” of Portland Public Schools over the last year, saying they risked their health to feed students and their families.

“They did this vaccine-less, in the rain, in the freezing cold, and during forest fires that at one point caused Portland to have the worst air quality in the world, and they did it with nothing more than a one-sided pop-up tent, a mask, and a pair of disposable gloves,” Meyers said.

A Portland teacher has organized a crowd-funding web page to raise money for personal protective equipment for Portland Public Schools employees. In an update posted earlier this week, teacher Beyoung Yu wrote that so far, enough money has been raised to provide every SEIU Local 503 member with a pack of KN96 masks.

SEIU Local 503 has also been rallying the district to hire more union-represented custodians. Referring to a voter-approved bond measure to modernize and rebuild Portland schools, Meyers asked the school board to consider SEIU’s suggestion.

“Do we want to hire and maintain a custodial staff to protect the multi-million dollar trust our community has put on us, or do we continue down the path we have been following for the last 15 years and watch these nice, new shiny schools become the catchphrase, ‘moderately dingy?’”

“Moderately dingy” is a term that SEIU Local 503 has taken exception to during its push for higher maintenance standards and custodial staffing levels in the district. In past documents, Portland Public Schools has used the phrase to describe current cleaning standards, citing the Association of Physical Plant Administrators’ “moderate dinginess” standard.

In its school reopening materials, the district has stated there are no plans to increase custodial capacity. But the district’s proposed budget for next year includes operational investments “towards needed custodial positions.”

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