Cafeteria jobs serve up some stability

A cafeteria worker at Bowie High School serves food to a student during lunch in Austin, Tex.

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Kai Ryssdal: Pilgrim's Pride announced today it's going to shut down three chicken-processing plants in the southeastern part of the United States. That'll be another 3,000 people out of work and there'll no doubt be stiff competition for any new jobs that do happen to open up. Even the ones that in better times were hard to fill. That would include school cafeteria workers too. You remember them, right? The people who sling the jello, serve up the burgers and stand on their feet all day. Occupational hazards aside, demand for those lunchroom jobs has more than tripled in some places.

From Birmingham, Ala., Gigi Douban reports.


Gigi Douban: Bonnie Maharrey is used to coming home smelling like greasy food. She worked at the Omelette Shoppe in Birmingham, Ala. for 20 years and then quit. But Maharrey is a single mom. She has three kids, and her child support recently dropped by a third.

Bonnie Maharrey: Money. Needed the money.

The big expense: How to pay for education.

Maharrey: Well, I have a daughter in college. Very costly. So it's either go back to work or she don't get to go to college.

So Maharrey got a job last fall as a cafeteria worker at Pleasant Grove Elementary School.

Maharrey: Everybody needs work, we have very good benefits, pay's not bad. It's a job.

It's by no means a glamorous job: You remember the bright smocks, the black sneakers, the hair nets. But Maharrey doesn't mind. Neither do a lot of people these days. Just look at the number of applicants for lunchroom jobs in the local school system.

Nathan Hayes: In the past we would get 10 to 12. We're getting 37, 47, now.

Nathan Hayes is child nutrition supervisor for Jefferson County schools. He says not only are more people applying, they're not balking as much about the pay.

Hayes: That's why a lot of people right now are saying you know what, the money's great, I like making extra money, but hey I'll take a job paying less for more stability where I know I can bank on that job being here tomorrow.

But there was a time when hardly anyone wanted to be the lunch lady. Take Rebecca Jones. Back when she started 25 years ago, she just wanted a job that would get her out of the house while her kids were at school.

Rebecca Jones: It just fit in. I was home when they were at home, we were off together, so it gave me more time with my family.

But then things changed. Her husband got laid off from the coal mines, and work wasn't just for kicks anymore. Today, Jones is the lunchroom manager at Pleasant Grove. Here's the worst part of her job: Jones spends hours tracking down moms who haven't sent in lunch money. She says since the economic downturn, she's evolved into a sort of bill collector.

Jones: She has $1.96. So she's got enough for today. Alright, thank you.

Doubon:So they need a little shaking down.

Jones:Turn 'em upside down and seeing how much they've got in their pockets.

Doubon:I was going to say you almost need a Tony Soprano working here or something.

But while the economic strains have added a few twists, some parts of the job haven't changed a bit. The lunch ladies still sit down to have their own lunch at ten in the morning. They still get summers off. And the pay is still pretty low -- $13 an hour here.

Jones says she never imagined she'd have stayed in this job for as long as she has. And even though she's eligible for retirement now, she can't call it quits just yet. Her husband is retired and sick.

But even though Jones and her newest hire, Bonnie Maharrey, are working to make ends meet, something else takes the sting out of the economic hardship.

Jones: I just love working with kids. That makes my day. These little kids will tell you anything. You can't ask questions or anything, but sometimes you know when they're having a bad day by the way they look at you and, uh, you learn about their parents.

These are, incidentally, the same parents that Jones fed when she first started working at the high school 25 years ago.

In Birmingham, I'm Gigi Douban for Marketplace.

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