Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris vows to “turn over every stone” to find funds to pay cafeteria workers a “living wage.”
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris vows to “turn over every stone” to find funds to pay cafeteria workers a “living wage.” (Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris made a Wednesday afternoon press conference about a war on poverty – a war that should be fought by all elected officials in Shelby County, he said.

The gathering was about voicing support for a “living wage” for the 600-plus cafeteria workers in Shelby County Schools.

“Two hundred thousand people in Shelby County live in poverty,” said Harris. “Everyone who works should earn a living wage. It’s about the dignity and respect of public employees. The work of cafeteria workers is worthy and important. It is work that is as worthy and important as anyone else’s, including the work of the principal.”

Harris noted that there are about 680 cafeteria workers who make $11.57 to $14.17 per hour. As he spoke, an alliance of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) officials, community leaders and cafeteria workers took a stance with him.

AFSCME President Jason Hunter said the cafeteria workers, who are represented by the union, should be making $15 an hour.

“These people deal with our children every day,” Hunter said. “And I would hope that every elected official will support this effort to have school cafeteria workers make a living wage.”

AFSCME Vice-President Joyce Richardson, who is also on the cafeteria staff at White Station High School, agreed that their work is important.

“These are mostly hard- working young ladies and young men who make sure the food is made fresh for breakfast and lunch,” said Richardson.

Phillip Cooey, a cafeteria worker at Ridgeway High School, said, “This wage dispute, this disparity is unfair. We should receive the same wages as all the other Shelby County employees so we are not living in poverty. The wage would help me make sure my family is OK.”

Executive Director Keith Williams of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said, “We cannot have the parents of our own children not making a living wage. …

“If you work and have to beg and borrow, then why do you work? This is reminiscent of the 1968 strike. They work part-time, and they have no benefits. Cafeteria workers should make $15 an hour. The school system should do the right thing.”

Harris said during this year’s budget season he “would turn over every stone to find funding for the pay raise.

“Now is the time to secure a commitment from the school system. Now one is really actually working on this issue. We’ve all got to get busy before the budget season runs out on June 5.”

Harris said just because the Shelby County Commission earmarks funds for a raise for cafeteria workers does not mean the school board will necessarily spend those dollars for that particular purpose. 

Shelby County Schools Board Chairperson Shante Avant said, “We commend the county commission for trying to raise wages for cafeteria workers. …And we appreciate our partnership with the county. But we were the ones who methodically stepped out first to raise wages for our own part-time workers to $15-an-hour.”

Harris made public a resolution recently sponsored by County Commissioners Eddie S. Jones Jr. and Willie F. Brooks Jr. The measure called for all public institutions to “…treat workers with dignity and pay a wage sufficient to keeping workers out of poverty rather than trapping them in it…”

The resolution further asserted that “approximately 300 employees at Shelby County Schools, 335 employees at the University of Memphis, and many workers at University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Southwest Tennessee Community College currently earn less than $15 per hour, which is not a livable wage…” 

Commissioners invited “all public servants holding office in Shelby County to join this call.”