“I sort of accidentally landed in the cafeteria,” says Grace Menjivar, a Food Service Worker with the Los Angeles Unified School District. “I took the job because the work hours allowed me to take my kids to school and be there to greet them when they got home and get them started on their homework.”
But even though it was an accident, now she wouldn’t do anything else. The food industry fits her personality. She’s a people person. She loves to be of service. She loves the fast-paced work environment. She likes to make the customers happy. She likes being part of a team that has to work together to complete the job—in this case, lunch!
“I really like to see the kids when they come around to my lunch cart on campus—they seem happy,” says Grace. “They get to know me. I get to know them. I let them know about lunch. ‘I made some really good tuna today, you guys. It’s fresh’ and they’ll say ‘that sounds really good!’”
Grace has worked for the District for eight years. And while she loves the work, she doesn’t like the bullying. And ever since reading Margaret’s story, Grace is more determined than ever to improve the work environment at LAUSD’s kitchens.
Sometimes, it might not sound like a big deal. Listening to some of the workers’ stories, you might think, “So your boss gave you some instructions…what’s the big deal?” But there’s a relentlessness and a pettiness to the management style that starts to wear away at your soul. Some call it “excessive monitoring.” Others just call it harassment.
The other day, Grace was on a roll. She was working well and working fast. “I love to create an assembly line. It’s just how my brain works. And I do a good job.” She was making the salads and then packaging them. She had a tray full of her completed salads and she was whipping the lids on the salads.
Her manager ran out of her office and said, “No! No! No! You’re doing it all wrong!”
“What?” thought Grace.
The manager then showed her how she wanted it done. You take one salad. You put the lid on it. Then you put it on the tray. You definitely do NOT put a whole bunch of lids on a tray full of salads.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Grace. “It’s not like there was any difference in the quality of the salads or the quality of my work. It’s not like there’s a recipe for putting the plastic lids on ‘correctly.’”
And these kinds of intrusive “instructions” are unrelenting. Grace had to watch a co-worker get yelled at the other day. This co-worker had checked her production sheet and saw that it said 200 sandwiches. She got to work and made the 200 sandwiches. Evidently, after she’d checked her instructions, the manager changed the quantity without telling her. So she yelled at her—in front of her co-workers—and said that the next time she made the wrong quantity, she’d be written up.
“The manager is always writing us up,” says Grace. “I mean, we all have lives to live. We have other stresses. People are barely surviving, trying to pay our bills, care for our families—then we have to deal with the horrible work atmosphere on top of everything else. It just doesn’t have to be this way. We’re hard workers.”
Hearing from a lot of cafeteria workers across the District, it’s also clear that a common management tactic is to create cliques. Sort of “divide and conquer,” with favorite employees given smaller assignments and encouraged to “tell” on their co-workers.
“It actually makes me feel physically sick when I see my more timid co-workers getting treated so badly. The other day I was chatting with one of the youngest girls in our kitchen. I sort of feel like a mom to her. She was finished with her task and started helping me. We were chit-chatting while we worked, talking about what she was going to get her little girl for Christmas. The manager came out of her office and said ‘No talking!’ I explained that we were working. We were getting out job done. She said it was okay to talk as long as we were only talking about work, nothing personal. It’s really rude. Just a few feet away, her favorites were laughing and talking as they made sandwiches. She said nothing to them.”
To make ends meet for her family, Grace also works at a local Philly Cheesesteak restaurant. She says the atmosphere there is very respectful. It’s like night and day.
Grace is working with her union to try and bring this kind of collaborative and pleasant atmosphere—the kind she has at her other job—to her school kitchen. She wants her school kitchen to be a place where you can have a smile on your face, where people actually feel like they can talk to each other in the break room. A place where a child could overhear conversations and instructions and learn what a good workplace looks like.