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5 ways labor shortages, supply chain issues are taking a toll on Utah schools

Workers dump cheese into a vat as they make cheese sauce at Bates Central Kitchen in West Valley City, Utah.
Workers dump cheese into a vat as they make cheese sauce at Bates Central Kitchen, the Granite School District’s central kitchen and warehouse, in West Valley City on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

From school employees wearing multiple hats and working extended hours to emergency runs to warehouse stores to bridge late deliveries of school lunch supplies, labor shortages and supply chain issues are exacting a toll on Utah schools.

Here’s five ways those impacts are felt:

Pinched supplies

Even when products are available, there are waits on the supplier end as they struggle to deliver due to driver shortages.

Knowing this, the Granite School District orders some products up to 16 weeks in advance and “they’re still not being delivered on time,” said spokesman Ben Horsley.

Empty shelves in the district warehouse illustrate the challenge.

“This is the first year we’ve not had that filled to the brim. In fact, it’s less than 50% capacity right now because we just cannot get items in stock,” he said.

Another complicating factor is that school purchasing is done through procurement process, which means they must put their supply needs out to competitive bid.

“Then the struggle has been that not enough companies are actually responding to those bids because they can’t guarantee the product to be delivered in a certain time. Beef and poultry products in particular are challenging,” Horsley said.

The warehouse and central kitchen staff have labored to serve what’s on school menus but substitutions occur when supplies do not materialize. The school district prepares some 44,000 meals a day “and the demand has never been greater,” he said,

Workers process food for schools at at Bates Central Kitchen, the Granite School District’s central kitchen and warehouse, in West Valley City on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Workers process food for schools at at Bates Central Kitchen, the Granite School District’s central kitchen and warehouse, in West Valley City on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Fewer menu choices

According to Kathleen Britton, the Utah State Board of Education’s director of child nutrition programs, supply chain disruptions and labor shortages mean reductions in menu variety and meal service options.

“What does this mean for Utah school meals? In short, reduced menu variety and meal service options, and frequent menu changes,” Britton said in a press release.

For instance, Americans’ appetite for chicken continues to grow but the chicken processing industry has been hit with unprecedented winter storms in Texas as well as its own labor shortages.

“This now means that orange chicken, a favorite lunch entree at many schools, is on the menu less frequently this school year,” she said.

Not only are school districts struggling to source some types of food, single-use food trays and cutlery are also in short supply, which means districts are returning to metal or plastic trays and flatware that requires washing, which is labor-intensive, as is ensuring students don’t throw them away when they are done eating, as they are accustomed to do.

Disposable food trays, which were ordered in June and just arrived, wait to be delivered to schools from Bates Central Kitchen, the Granite School District’s central kitchen and warehouse, in West Valley City on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Disposable food trays, which were ordered in June and just arrived, wait to be delivered to schools from Bates Central Kitchen, the Granite School District’s central kitchen and warehouse, in West Valley City on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Treasure hunts

When districts and charter schools can’t access sustenance from traditional sources, some are forced to look elsewhere to meet their needs.

Nutrition services administrators have, on occasion, purchased supplies and food from local grocery stores or warehouse stores to shore up supplies on an emergency basis. The hunts for supplies add to already long days ensuring there are sufficient numbers of workers to meet Granite School District’s food service needs, which have increased as students have returned to schools full time, Horsley said.

“The stress is across the board. Our nutrition services director and leadership team are working 15 to 20 hours a day in some instances to go out and find supplies and food,” he said.

It’s complicated by labor shortages at farms and ranches. Many food processors lack enough employees to maintain production levels. There are shortages of truck drivers to haul food from factories, let alone sufficient numbers of workers at suppliers’ warehouses.

“Keeping up with the increase in school meals and navigating through current circumstances has brought new challenges,” Britton said.

Workers process food for schools at Bates Central Kitchen, the Granite School District’s central kitchen and warehouse, in West Valley City on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Workers process food for schools at Bates Central Kitchen, the Granite School District’s central kitchen and warehouse, in West Valley City on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Labor shortages

Prior to the start of the school year, school districts started advertising higher starting wages for school bus drivers to help stem driver shortages, with some districts offering more than $21 hours to start.

In Granite District, there is still a need for contract drivers, but labor needs are more acute for school nutrition workers and paraprofessionals who support educators in classrooms.

“Paraprofessionals have always been a challenge simply by virtue of the fact that we just cannot compete with the private sector in this economy when our budgets are limited,” Horsley said.

When school districts experience labor shortages, current employees often work overtime to meet needs. Granite District’s central kitchen staff is a third smaller than in previous years.

“It just means things take longer and less people are doing the work. So we have people coming in and working extra long hours,” Horsley said.

At the school level, there are also fewer employees to distribute meals “so lunch times are prolonged in some instances and in some locations,” he said.

Who’s in the classroom?

Many school districts along the Wasatch Front have increased pay for substitute teachers or are offering stipends to substitutes who work multiple days in a certain time period to help address shortages.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Davis School District had about a 95% fill rate for substitute positions. In the last year, the number slipped to 75%, according to a school district statement.

To help meet its labor needs, the district recently increased the full day pay for substitute teachers to $113 a day for certified or licensed substitutes. Long-term daily pay goes up to $140 a day for licensed educators who spend 20 consecutive days in a classroom.

Meanwhile, the daily rate for substitutes with a college degree was also raised to $105, and $85 for people who do not have a college degree.

Assistant Superintendent John Zurbuchen said the change helps the district compete for available employees in the workforce who prefer temp work.

“When we get the best subs, we get the best learning,” he said.

In some school districts, midlevel administrators are also filling in as substitutes when needs arise and some teachers are filling in for absent teachers in their buildings, opting to pick up a class — and compensation — during what is their preparation time. They still have to prepare lessons, grade papers and other activities they plan during their prep time.

In Salt Lake County, at least, many substitute teachers work for multiple school districts, which increases the chances that they’ll have more options for assignments at schools close to their homes, that they get to work with administrators or faculty members they know, or work with the age of child they prefer. But it also means there is healthy competition for the same pool of workers.

Bottom line, “It’s less people and a more demanding job than it’s ever been when it comes to public education,” said Horsley.

A worker walks into a freezer at Bates Central Kitchen, the Granite School District’s central kitchen and warehouse, in West Valley City on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
A worker walks into a freezer at Bates Central Kitchen, the Granite School District’s central kitchen and warehouse, in West Valley City on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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