TOWER— Longtime Tower School “lunch lady” Marilyn Turnbull may soon be getting help from a high-powered Twin Cities law firm as she pursues her claim for fair pay from the St. Louis County …
TOWER— Longtime Tower School “lunch lady” Marilyn Turnbull may soon be getting help from a high-powered Twin Cities law firm as she pursues her claim for fair pay from the St. Louis County School District.
Following the Timberjay’s Nov. 30 story on her plight, she was referred to the Halunen Law Firm, which agreed to take her case. The firm’s leading partner, Clayton Halunen, has a prominent summer home on Lake Vermilion and his mother, a retired teacher, is also a resident of the lake.
The story highlighted Turnbull’s years-long struggle to be compensated as a “cook manager,” which is the title and pay grade that most closely reflects her actual duties. The district has, instead, classified her as an “assistant cook,” even though she has run the school kitchen in Tower almost singlehandedly for years. The lower designation has resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in lost income for Turnbull, who has lived alone since her husband Ballard died 13 years ago. Turnbull currently earns just over $14 an hour as an assistant cook, nearly $2 an hour less than she would earn as a cook manager. She works about 40 hours per week during the school year.
Turnbull had hoped a Monday meeting with Superintendent Reggie Engebritson might yield some breakthrough on the longstanding issue, but the meeting made little progress after Engebritson immediately ruled out any concession on a possible reclassification of her position. “She only wanted to know if I would be renewing my license,” said Turnbull. The 66-year-old Turnbull has been a certified food handler for decades and the Tower School kitchen is kept open solely on her license.
Turnbull said she was “flabbergasted” by Engebritson’s response and attitude. “I thought they would be willing to do something,” she said.
Turnbull had her meeting with the superintendent without union representation, which is unusual according to Troy Swanson, Tower’s representative on the St. Louis County School Board. “She pays union dues. Where were they?” Swanson asked. “The union should be involved with this. They’re falling down on the job.”
Turnbull is represented by the Teamsters. A local union representative, when contacted by the Timberjay last month, had no comment on the situation. The representative had advocated for a reclassification for Turnbull in an email he sent to Engebritson last January, but the superintendent rebuffed the union’s request and the matter appears to have gone no further. Turnbull, in frustration, reached out to the Timberjay in October, which led to the initial story last month.
Engebritson said the issue remains one for the district and the union to resolve. “Marilyn needs to bring it up to her union rep and if she is not satisfied, she can bring it higher up,” Engebritson said.
The involvement of the Halunen Law Firm could raise the stakes for the school district. The Halunen firm has a track record of winning major cases on employment and whistleblower issues as well as product liability class actions, often going up against major corporations and government agencies.
Clayton Halunen indicated that the firm will seek to work out an amicable settlement with the district. If that isn't possible, he said the firm intends to file a lawsuit to address the injustice.