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Four Jobs in One Day

Bookkeeper, lunch lady, classroom aide, and crossing guard — it takes four different jobs to put together a single living wage.

By Mary Ellen Flannery


A Day with Mrs. D

Deb De Grave, an education support professional in the northern Wisconsin village of Denmark, punches four different timecards each day. From breakfast to lunch duty, account-keeping to classroom-assisting, she rushes from school to school, job to job. She loves each one, but she needs each one, too, to make any kind of living. Even after 20-plus years, a classroom aide here can’t expect much more than $12,000 a year. And the cost of health benefits continues to rise. De Grave has a co-worker in the food service department who works four hours a day, pays for her share of family health insurance, and sometimes takes home $4 a day.

“You got a haircut!” De Grave exclaims (left). Nodding proudly, the newly buzzed student walks away with a healthy breakfast. De Grave’s first job of the day is helping elementary students get ready to learn. “Do you want a milk with that, Sam?” After everybody fuels up, she shuts down her till, hustles outside, and hops into her red minivan. At 8:20, she pulls up to the early education center. At 8:30, the middle school. At 8:35, it’s off to the high school. At each one, she cheerfully greets the office staff, sorts through her keys, and empties a lockbox of lunch receipts.

Past the trays of Tater Tots and hot dogs, De Grave balances the food service accounts in a small office in the high school cafeteria. During this part of her day, she works for the district’s food service department—but her boss, the guy standing over her shoulder and chatting about the Brewers’ last innings, is from a private company, Taher. De Grave has nothing but compliments for Josh Good, a fresh-faced chef who reminds his employees that they’re one team. But it can still be bad business. Half of the ladies are Taher employees, not union members, and don’t get the same benefits: no paid holidays, no personal days, and the last pick of overtime hours. And it could get worse. Taher recently lost its contract to Chartwells, a company that isn’t exactly famous for its employee-friendly policies.

De Grave adds the cash and pastel personal checks— “I’ve got so many Robinsons, so many Schlies to keep straight!”— totalling $2,426. This year, lunch receipts have held steady, but she sees the poor economy reflected in a 15 percent decline for the 35-cent “milk break.” “If parents are having hard times … milk break is kind of a luxury.” At 11, De Grave jumps back into her car and delivers her cash bag to the local drive-through bank. Is she nervous carrying around that kind of money? “Noooo,” she laughs.

“All right, what do you have for me?” De Grave asks kindergarten teacher Deb Van Goethem. For the next 90 minutes, De Grave pairs up with kids, operates the copy machine, and does whatever her teachers need to work effectively. On this spring morning, the 4-year-olds are writing descriptive Mother’s Day books. “My mom likes to eat…salit,” writes one. (How healthy!) De Grave pauses over another and says, “Wow! Pretty neat! Do you like Doritos, too?”

Back to the early elementary center, where De Grave runs two lunch sessions. “Mrs. De Grave, I can’t eat oranges! This hurts me!” says one boy, revealing a gap in his smile. “Chew on the other side!” she cheerfully retorts.

”I’m watching you!” De Grave puts the eye on a 4-year-old boy goofing in a hallway line. “Come here, please! Do you want me to tell your mother about this?” Like 80 percent of NEA’s support professionals, De Grave lives and volunteers in the community where she works, which gives her authority and credibility with children and parents. Everybody knows Mrs. D. She looks like the “average ESP” in other ways, too—she is a woman (87 percent are), over 40 (the average age is 49), with more than 10 years of experience.

After a quick (and unpaid) break at home, De Grave grabs her stop sign and steps into the car and bus lanes. “One day a kid zoomed through here and up to the baseball field, and I followed him right there and said, ‘Alex, if you don’t slow down....’” De Grave helps dozens of students cross safely—sometimes shivering through freezing rain and snow.

Today, at 3:20 p.m., after the chatter has quieted and the bus drivers have waved goodbye, she looks both ways and says, “Nobody on the sidewalks! I’m done.”

Photos: Philip Weston

View the slideshow below for a glimpse of De Grave's typical workday.

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  • anc_dyn_linksOctober | November 2009
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