At Parmelee Elementary School in South Los Angeles, Margarita Gasca donned chunky black boots, a heavy coat and a beanie to join the picket line off campus and fight for a living wage.
The 48-year-old food service worker has worked at Parmelee for a year and has been with the school district for 16 years. She earns $16.91 an hour and feels like she “basically works for benefits,” she said.
She said she hasn’t had a raise in about five years.
“We get paid very little for the work we do,” Gasca said.
The cafeteria is “very understaffed,” he said. She works 6.5 hours a day and would appreciate more work, but the district said there are no more hours available, she said, although the work needs to be done.
“They say they don’t have enough hours for us. We have to hurry. We have to feed the children despite everything.”
New hires, she said, earn salaries equal to or higher than what she earns, even when she trains them.
Joining her in line, for example, was Elina Velasco, 37, a senior food service worker who has worked in the cafeteria for a year and makes $18 an hour.
It is too little, they say, for continuous work. They said there are only three workers in the cafeteria, and when someone calls in sick, there are few substitutes.
The women said they prepare about 700 breakfasts—which are put in bags that students take to class—and about 800 lunches and more than 100 dinners.
They cook, they even make hundreds of cookies from scratch, they fill the plates, they do the dishes, they clean the kitchen, they take students’ names and enter them into the computer system, they serve the meals online.
For about eight months, one of their two stoves was broken, and a refrigerator finally received long-overdue repairs, they said.
It is a role that is often invisible, despite the hard work, because they rarely leave the cafeteria. Case in point: When the women arrived at the protest, some people asked who they were.
We are in the cafeteria. We are at the bottom of the food chain,” Velasco said.
Still, Velasco said, the support through the strike feels good.
About two dozen employees marched in the rain with them Tuesday in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, getting honked from passing cars on a quiet morning. Even though the campus offers childcare, only a few students showed up.
When the striking workers pulled into the gated employee parking lot, they were greeted by an administrator who told them if they didn’t work, they couldn’t park there, a striking worker said.
Erika Rioverde, a 39-year-old parent resource liaison at Parmelee Avenue Elementary School who makes $15 an hour, came with her 13-year-old son, Christopher Ortiz, as their campus was also closed. Her 6-year-old son, who attends Parmelee, was with her grandmother. Many strikers had similar difficulties finding childcare for their own children in the district.
“We are the parents of the children we serve,” Rioverde said.
Rioverde schedules parenting classes, helps run English as a Second Language programs, and health classes for parents.
She is also the homeless liaison at the school, she said.
Rioverde grew up in this neighborhood and has been working on this campus for nine years.
During the pandemic, he worked on campus, not at home. She sat at a table outside, even when it was raining, helping parents with remote learning technology and the parent portal.
“I can’t go to school,” said Christopher, who attends an LAUSD high school campus closed during the strike. “My mom needs to earn more money. She goes to union meetings all the time. She comes to work all the time.”
She said her family doesn’t eat out in restaurants much because of money, and he plays baseball and needs better equipment that she can’t afford, she said as her mother laughed.
Rioverde said she was frustrated that the district released information about closed campuses so late on Monday. She knows firsthand that it is difficult to find child care at the last minute, and the families she serves are working families.
Around 8:15 a.m., Cynthia Salazar walked over to Parmelee with her 8-year-old son, sighing as she dropped him off at the daycare program there. She dropped him off in the school auditorium, where Beyond the Bell staff were looking after the children during the day.
At the time, his son was one of only three students. A boy in a Spider-Man jacket and another in a white hoodie sat at desks, silently staring at laptops.
Salazar understood the fight for better wages and a tenuous balance between work and childcare. He had to rush home to get dressed for work at a nearby grocery store, where he hands out food samples.
“Schools closed. For me? It’s a big problem,” Salazar said.