© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kansas City Public Schools faces grievances from maintenance and cafeteria workers’ union

A Kansas City Public Schools student grabs a milk before heading to class. The union representing maintenance, custodial and cafeteria workers in the district has filed seven class-action grievances.
Chase Castor
Kansas City Beacon
A Kansas City Public Schools student grabs a milk before heading to class. The union representing maintenance, custodial and cafeteria workers in the district has filed seven class-action grievances.

Kansas City Public Schools’ SEIU Local 1 union claims the district has delayed pay hikes and left other contract promises unfulfilled. Workers expressed frustration at a board meeting in mid-November, emphasizing issues like understaffing and inadequate training.

In a matter of months, the union representing maintenance, custodial and cafeteria workers at Kansas City Public Schools went from a cordial relationship with the district to filing seven class-action grievances.

The grievances include allegations that the district hasn’t delivered all raises laid out in the latest labor contract, has disciplined workers for using leave they’re entitled to and didn’t give them orientation they were promised, said Rose Welch, the lead organizer for Service Employees International Union Local 1 in Kansas City. 

Some of the grievances affect all 350 to 400 members of the union at KCPS, Welch said. Other complaints focus on a smaller group of workers but could have wider implications, such as a chilling effect against using leave.

Normally, problems that come up can be solved through a less formal grievance process. But lately, Welch said, the union escalated the disputes to formal class-action grievances.

After failing to resolve the pay issue more informally, the union is invoking a state law that lets any workers shorted on pay get damages equal to twice the amount they’re owed, Welch said. If the grievances aren’t resolved, the next step would be binding and costly arbitration.

KCPS spokesperson Shain Bergan said the district can’t comment on the union’s grievances.

Meanwhile, unresolved grievances can create frustration for workers who ensure school buildings are running safely and students are fed, KCPS union members and organizers said during public comment at a mid-November school board meeting.

“You have to think about your bills, or think about the transportation breaking down,” Jermaine Sails, an internal organizer for the Missouri Division of SEIU Local 1, said in an interview after giving public comment. “The thing that keeps you going every day is a job because you got students that count on you, but you can’t count on the district to do their part.”

Union grievance process

Closeup image showing a silver and gray sign on a brick building that reads: "Kansas City Public Schools."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Misunderstandings and mistakes are normal in a workplace, Welch said, and the union can usually resolve them informally.

For example, a worker might ask the union for support if their supervisor denies time off they believe they’re entitled to. The union would refer to the contract to judge the claim.

If a worker believes their salary wasn’t updated correctly, Welch said, the district is obligated to give SEIU the information it needs to investigate.

Then “we can either walk people through why it’s correct or we can show that it’s not correct to get it corrected,” she said.

Generally, when SEIU has raised issues, KCPS has accepted the union’s requests or proposed another reasonable solution, Welch said.

But since a human resources director who worked well with the KCPS union was promoted out of that role, Welch said, the district has been more reluctant to solve problems and share information.

KCPS union contract

This summer, SEIU Local 1 workers at Kansas City Public Schools ratified an agreement that gave them wage increases of at least 75 cents per hour and the right to a two-hour paid back-to-school orientation.

The pay increases were supposed to go into effect July 1, but were delayed, Welch said.

KCPS has said pay was fully updated as of Sept. 30, but won’t provide the union with the full information it needs to verify that claim, she said. At least 60 people have let the union know that they think their pay is still incorrect.

“It could be that there’s only 20 or 30 people remaining who still need their pay corrected,” Welch said. “It could be that there’s 300 people who still need their pay corrected. And there’s no way for us to know until we get the information that we’ve asked for.”

The union also believes that a lack of supervisor training is behind a trend of workers being disciplined for taking leave they’re allowed under their contract, Welch said, something at least 40 employees have reported.

After several meetings attempting to resolve the issue, the union hadn’t seen evidence that administrators provided that training, Welch said. It filed grievances related to employee discipline and supervisor training.

Other grievances are related to the back-to-school orientation that all members of the bargaining unit were supposed to get, the union receiving bulletin board space in all buildings and compliance with the grievance process itself, Welch said.

The union has started to send some grievances to the superintendent and to meet with school board members, “all of whom so far have assured us that it is not the district’s intention to change our relationship for the worse,” Welch said. “This is most likely some road bumps in a long-term good relationship.”

She had hoped that the union’s message during public comment at the November school board meeting would be “thanks for listening.”

But when the meeting came, the grievances hadn’t been resolved. Union members also spoke about workplace problems such as understaffing and lack of training.

In an interview, Jerry Stinnett, a union steward and KCPS preventive maintenance worker, said he wants the union to hold the district accountable for workplace problems, including an ineffective system for assigning maintenance work orders.

“We have a union structure now that allows us to bring (problems) to the front strongly,” he said. “Those who are not doing right will find themselves in a situation to explain why.”

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.