If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

Nov 6, 2019 by

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”  That is former President Harry Truman’s advice but the Department of Education has its own “take” on it.

The kitchen staff in our public schools routinely work under hazardous environmental conditions that would not be tolerable in most other employment venues. It is a matter not only of comfort but of safety.   It’s been that way for ages, but the aggrieved workers haven’t had the political clout to make the “powers that be” deliver on the false assurances of their intent to correct the situation.

Perhaps there may be some movement now.  The Daily News reported on this situation last week.  It’s old news recycled periodically. But now this long-endured untenable problem is being vigorously pursued by DC37 Local 372 with the able support of City Council Member and Education Committee Chair Mark Treyger.

The kitchen heat is so extreme that if the temperature/humidity index were that high outdoors, there would be emergency “action alert” warnings sent to our phones and there would be illuminated signs to that effect over highway overpasses.

Inadequate ventilation, cooling and wiring are the direct causes, but bureaucratic indifference is the underlying reason.  After all, this situation has been known, endured and referred for action for decades, even after  other areas of most schools had been air-conditioned or scheduled for it.

There’s no climate control in the kitchens, except occasional fans to blow away the roaches.

Kitchen workers are sometimes forced to resort to desperate measures just to get oxygen. Sounds like an exaggeration but it’s not. Doors for access to the kitchen from the street may be left open, though unattended by school safety agents. It’s a lesser risk.  Hey, you gotta breathe!

Our public school kitchens prepare a million meals every day. That requires a lot of preparation time.

Nobody expects their employer to pamper kitchen staff workers with the comforts of Mar-a-Lago.  There’s more mildew than milieu to speak of. But the complaint is driven not by ambience  and aesthetics but by real threat to health. 

Councilmember Treyger has called on the Department of Education to install air-conditioners in all our school kitchens. Before that happens, giraffes will learn to fly at supersonic speed.

By conservative estimate, the DOE has affirmed on principle (now that’s a laugh) that “all DOE staff deserve safe and comfortable working conditions, and will take a closer a closer look at this issue.”

That’s an insult to anyone familiar with their history of quashing scrutiny with phony promises.

Formerly I worked in one of the DOE’s summer feeding sites as the teacher responsible for maintaining order in the cafeteria and for counting the number of students who availed themselves of meals. During my non-assigned time between breakfast and lunch,there was a delivery to the kitchen. It was a sweltering day. The food handlers were fairly elderly, the cook was diabetic and on the verge of fainting, and no custodial personnel were available.

The heavy boxes were obstructing movement in the kitchen and had to be moved.  The delivery people had already left. Since there were no students present and as a small courtesy to the suffocating kitchen staff, who were preparing to feed almost a thousand hot meals within the next 3 hours on a steamy day, I moved the boxes myself.

Just at that moment, the DOE’s borough coordinator dropped by and was shocked by the initiative I had taken.  He reprimanded me for not confining myself strictly to the duties of my job description.  He said he was concerned about the (remote) risk of liability if I slipped and fell, not the kitchen workers. 

If he was reflecting the views of his own bosses at the DOE, it’s easy to see why the environmental conditions in the blistering kitchens is treated literally like it’s nobody’s business.

I could have told my supervisor ” go to hell”, but dripping with sweat after only a few minutes in those meteorologically-challenged surroundings, he was already there!

Ron Isaac

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