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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Seeking Fair Pay

Tower’s kindly ‘lunch lady’ says district has denied her fair compensation for many years

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/27/18

TOWER— For the past 35 years, Marilyn Turnbull has been urging kids at the Tower-Soudan School to eat their vegetables. It can be a tough sell, but it’s just one of many challenges she has faced …

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Seeking Fair Pay

Tower’s kindly ‘lunch lady’ says district has denied her fair compensation for many years


TOWER— For the past 35 years, Marilyn Turnbull has been urging kids at the Tower-Soudan School to eat their vegetables. It can be a tough sell, but it’s just one of many challenges she has faced during her time as the school’s favorite “lunch lady.”

While thousands of kids have passed through her lunch room over the years, Turnbull invariably found the time to learn each of their names, offering words of encouragement and support from her deep well of innate kindness.

“I love the kids,” says Turnbull. “I love ‘em like crazy. They’re my little buddies.”

Getting youngsters to eat right is always a challenge, but for Turnbull it has paled in comparison to her biggest challenge of all— getting the St. Louis County School District to pay her what she deserves.

For years, school administrators have ignored her pleas to be compensated as a “cook manager,” which is the title and pay grade that most closely reflects her actual duties.

Instead, the district has classified her as an “assistant cook,” even though she has run the school kitchen in Tower for years. The lower designation has cost tens of thousands of dollars in lost income for Turnbull, who has lived alone since her husband Ballard died 13 years ago.

“I’m the only assistant cook with a food manager’s license,” she said, noting that it’s her certification, posted at the school, that allows the district to continue to operate the kitchen there.

That license may not be available much longer. Turnbull said her current certification expires at the end of January and she’s not planning to renew it given what she sees as years of unfair treatment by the district. “If they’d be fair with me, I’d be fair and would work at least until the end of the year,” she said. “I feel like I’m going to quit, because they just won’t listen to me.

“I’m 66 and my ankle hurts really bad at the end of every day.”

Long battle

Turnbull said she’s argued repeatedly with the school district and her Teamsters’ union representative that she’s done the job of a cook manager for years without getting paid the higher wage that comes with the designation. She said past superintendents had promised to address the issue, but never did. She said her union representative eventually told her to stop calling him. Most recently, she asked Superintendent Reggie Engebritson to grant her the title and pay she was due.

In response, she said, Engebritson asked her to write down each of her duties for a week in order to document her work. Turnbull did so and produced pages of handwritten notes detailing her activities. “I went through days and days and sent it to her and never heard back,” she said.

Turnbull said she has considered retaining an attorney over the issue, but has, to date, tried to find other solutions.

In October, Turnbull, in frustration, asked the Timberjay to investigate the matter. That began a month-long battle with the school district, including the involvement of the school district’s legal counsel, to obtain a copy of the job descriptions for the position of “cook manager” and “assistant cook,” both of which are public information.

The difference in the job descriptions is revealing, in that it confirms that Turnbull has, in fact, done the work of a cook manager for years. The assistant cook, according to the district’s most recent job description, is exactly that— an assistant, who reports primarily to the head cook. The assistant cook’s job is to provide help to the cook manager, with little responsibility beyond assisting in food preparation, removing used dishes, emptying the trash and dealing with leftovers. It’s not clear who, exactly, school district officials believe Turnbull is assisting, since she handles all of the duties at the Tower-Soudan kitchen by herself.

The cook manager, by contrast, must maintain a current Minnesota Food Manager Certification, which Turnbull has done for years. The job description includes more than twice as many activities as an assistant, including dealing with students’ food service accounts, checking and signing off on food shipments, and determining the quantities of food to be prepared daily. The cook manager also keeps records daily records for the federal food program, records all food requisitions, and reports any problems or accidents occurring in the kitchen.

Earlier this year, Turnbull provided Engebritson several pages of detailed notes documenting her activities for a week in order to demonstrate that she met the criteria for a cook manager. Engebritson had requested that Turnbull undertake the time study in response to Turnbull’s request for reclassification.

In response to a request from Turnbull’s union representative to implement the reclassification, Engebritson argued in January of this year that Turnbull doesn’t meet all of the criteria for a cook manager because she does not have to manage other kitchen staff. But Turnbull notes that she has managed staff at various times and does currently oversee the part-time worker who handles the lunch payment process.

Engebritson also claimed that Turnbull “does not have to cook a majority of the food as it is already brought in cooked from Northeast Range. However, she on occasion does prepare some foods on a hot plate.”

Engebritson’s claims are inaccurate, according to Turnbull, who notes that she is responsible for preparing virtually all of the meals at the Tower school. “Only twice a month, do they bring food from Babbitt,” Turnbull said, and that is typically limited to only a portion of a meal.

Turnbull has a full kitchen range, rather than just a “hot plate” described by Engebritson.

Turnbull noted that when she recently had to take a day off for a medical appointment, the school had to order pizza from the Vermilion Club, since Babbitt no longer provides meals to Tower-Soudan.

Engebritson also argued that Turnbull doesn’t qualify as a cook manager because Tower is an elementary school only, although the district’s job descriptions make no distinction between the type of school in which a cook is working. Engebritson also argued that Turnbull does not have to track or make student deposits for breaksfasts or lunches since the school is what’s known as a CEP school, meaning that the district does not charge for meals. The Tower-Soudan school was formerly a CEP school for a year or two, but is no longer eligible, so Turnbull is required to track student payments as well.

The Timberjay, on Monday, submitted several questions to Superintendent Engebritson for this story. The superintendent promised answers but did not provide them prior to the paper’s Wednesday press time.


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