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SLC cafeteria workers in hostile work environment, complaint says

Published March 3, 2014 5:20 pm

Cafeterias • Complaint alleges women workers are treated badly on the job.
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Female cafeteria workers in the Salt Lake City School District have been subjected to a "hostile and intimidating" work environment, according to a complaint filed by a district board member with the federal government.

The complaint comes after the school district drew national scrutiny last month because dozens of kids' cafeteria lunches were trashed at Uintah Elementary in January.

Board member Michael Clara filed the complaint, alleging gender discrimination in the district's food service program, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in late February.

Clara said that office called him Friday to confirm it has accepted the complaint. A spokesperson for the office wasn't able to comment on the matter Monday, saying the office was closed because of severe weather in Washington, D.C.

In the complaint, Clara says a number of child nutrition workers have told him about "the pervasive pattern and practice of abusive behavior, perpetuated by the male director of the child nutrition department."

Kelly Orton, director of the district's child nutrition department, said Monday he couldn't comment on internal investigations and referred questions to district spokesman Jason Olsen.

Olsen said Monday Clara's allegations are "without merit." In an email to the Tribune, Olsen wrote, "We would welcome any chance to speak with the USDA and fully inform them about our Child Nutrition Department and school meal program."

In the complaint, Clara lists a number of specific allegations, including that workers aren't allowed to take their 30-minute lunches but must falsify them on punch cards; that employees are threatened with termination for questioning unethical practices; that in several elementary schools students aren't receiving full lunches because not enough food is ordered or prepared because of staffing issues; and that food preparation is not done according to health standards because of short staffing.

He did not name specific schools.

In response to some of the allegations, Olsen wrote, "Each school kitchen is inspected on a regular basis by the Health Department and must fulfill strict requirements in regards to cleanliness, cooking and washing temperatures, and overall sanitation."

Clara said he filed the complaint after meeting with several school cafeteria workers following the controversy over lunches seized at Uintah Elementary. As many as 40 kids had their meals thrown away because their parents were behind on payments. They were given fruit and milk instead.

The district has since apologized, initiated several investigations and pledged to only serve full meals from now on regardless of parents' balances. Olsen said the external investigation into the incident is ongoing.

Clara said he filed this new complaint because, "I agree with the women that they're being abused at work and they're being subjected to a hostile environment, and I have no confidence whatsoever the district has the ability to investigate something like this and self-correct."