As city officials tout the grab-and-go meals offered through its public school system as a resource for the growing number of food-insecure New Yorkers, some school food service employees say they’re not adequately protected or acknowledged for their exposure to the public.
Shaun D. Francois I, the president of the union that represents the workers, DC 37 Local 372, said the evolving decisions at the Department of Education meant that food workers were caught off-guard when Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced the grab-and-go meal program.
"This was supposed to be a long, extended snow day. But now they’re deemed essential workers. So all the rules change all of a sudden,” Francois said.
"Each school now has ten workers in it now, 15 workers in it now, and the way those kitchens are designed, they cannot practice social distancing when you have ten, 15 people in the school,” Francois said. “It’s ridiculous, it’s against the mandate that they put out there."
There are about 9,000 food service employees working at the DOE’s meal hubs and Regional Enrichment Centers that provide childcare to essential workers, according to the union. The city has served 4.5 million meals to New Yorkers since the pandemic began, more than 3 million of them coming from the DOE's centers.
According to the DOE, two food service workers have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The agency has not released the names of the employees pending family notification.
The DOE’s statistics did not include Jessica Jaramillo, 39, of the Upper West Side, who worked in the cafeteria of Queens Vocational High School in Long Island City.
Jaramillo fell ill soon after schools were closed on March 15th. She was hospitalized at Mount Sinai on March 29th and died on March 31st, said her former partner Alfonso Fernandez.
Her family was only able to give her a proper funeral last week at Woodlawn Cemetery after their quarantine period was completed.
Jaramillo had an autoimmune condition after a liver transplant several years ago, which her supervisors knew about because she had submitted medical records in her file, said her sister Carol Powell. Jaramillo was worried that continuing to work at the high school would be dangerous for her health and asked for time off, Powell said. Her last day going to work was March 16th.
Powell said Jaramillo was asked to provide a doctor's note about her high-risk condition despite her existing medical record on file at the DOE.
“They asked her to provide another letter, which she ended up doing but she already was feeling ill,” Powell said. “She was scared, and she said that her doctor said that it's not a good idea for you [to work]. If kids are excused from [school], you should definitely be put in that same category because of your condition."
The DOE said Jaramillo’s request for leave was “immediately granted.”
“Jessica Jaramillo was a School Lunch Helper at Queens Vocational High School. She asked to be excused from work from March 18th through April 9th. Her request was immediately granted and her last day was March 17th. Her passing was not initially reported to the DOE as COVID-19-related,” DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said in a statement.
The DOE also did not initially provide the N95-type masks to food employees, so the union acquired masks for their membership.
"Local 372 had to go out and purchase 20,000 masks to service the workers out there working in the field, in the elements. But we knew the masks we were purchasing wasn’t going to be sufficient for a long period of time,” Francois said. “We figured we’d do that in the meantime."
The DOE is now providing masks to all food service workers, though it’s up to site managers to keep the masks in stock.
“Everyone who enters a Meal Hub and REC is required to practice social distancing of at least 6 feet,” Steyer said in a statement. “All food service sites are frequently reminded of social distancing guidance – including recommendations that staff spread out and use as much of the cafeteria and kitchen as possible for food assembly. These guidelines and recommendations are encouraged in every communication.”
Steyer added, "Our food service employees have shown true heroism during this difficult time and their safety is one of our top priorities while they’re on the front-lines fighting hunger and feeding the children of essential workers."
Food service worker Vondora Jordan, 51, said she has been recently reassigned to prepare food at a school kitchen where conditions were better there than her previous assignment at PS 125 in Harlem.
“The managers make sure that everybody's keeping six feet apart, and with masks and of course we wear gloves and our uniforms,” Jordan said.
Nonetheless, she’s worried about her increased exposure to the public now that the grab-and-go meals are available to everyone, no questions asked.
“We are feeding families and people from different areas. I’m a school food worker. I don't work in a hospital. I don't work in the pantries. No, I am a school food worker. I feed New York City children. But now you got me feeding adults, families, everybody else,” she said.
Jordan said the constant work reassignments to new locations also worries her. “It's just a major concern that I was bouncing from place to place, putting us at risk every day and not being recognized. That's all I want them to recognize, that this is a serious situation,” Jordan said.
“I love my job," she added. "I just don't like the way we’re being treated like we don't exist.”
With reporting from Shumita Basu / WNYC