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Don't pit the ABCs against the 'lunch ladies'

I'm not trying to keep Karla Saenz from getting her eyeglasses or to allow Gloria Lua's cholesterol to land her in a hospital bed.

And I understand why they and their fellow cafeteria workers might have taken it personally when I slammed the Los Angeles Unified School District in my column on Tuesday for footing the bill for their healthcare costs.

I used the three-year-old deal, a $35-million annual commitment for a school system facing a $400-million deficit this year, as an example of the sort of irresponsible spending that feeds the public perception of government employees on the dole.

How are we supposed to feel, I asked, when a school system can afford medical insurance for part-time lunch ladies while it raises class size, lays off teachers and cuts counselors and librarians.

Proud, said union rep Terry Carter. Now thousands of hard-working, low-wage employees in Los Angeles have what every job in this country ought to guarantee: basic healthcare for their families.

"For our members, these union jobs are a path toward the middle class," said Carter, a spokeswoman for Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, whose 40,000 Southern California members include L.A. Unified cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education aides and gardeners.

Carter scolded me for blaming the victims in this brewing national battle over union rights and government responsibilities. Public sector workers are not just characters in some political parable, she said.

"Our 'lunch ladies' are taxpayers, they're parents, they're the first people many children see when they get to school in the morning. They believe what they do is important."

She offered to drive me around the district on Thursday to meet some of those workers and see what they do. I joined her, notebook in hand.

::

Wayne Fields isn't a lady and he doesn't just serve lunch.

Fields was 20 when he was hired by the district as a "general cook," full-time with benefits, 32 years ago. He was expected to whip up from scratch dishes he had never heard of, "like albóndigas," Mexican meatball soup.

"I asked lots of questions and took my own notes," said Fields. He worked up a recipe for beef brisket — "with a little bit of lemon juice to tenderize it" — that was the envy of the kitchen corps.

But a few years later, full-timers' slots were cut. Their benefits were eliminated, their schedules carved up in three-hour shifts. That began 30 years of job juggling — afternoons at a convenience store, nights as a hotel auditor, weekends working Raiders games — to augment his cafeteria pay.

He stayed because he loved the kids, even as the job lost its cachet. "Today everything is pre-cooked; it comes in, we warm it up," he told me as pizza browned in the oven at the Hollywood Primary Center, where he serves breakfast and lunch daily to more than 200 students, from pre-K to third grade.

Stir-fry vegetables are about the most complicated meal he has to make. His most important job might be making sure students don't spill the food. "I have to teach the little ones how to balance it out so they can carry their trays," he said. I asked Fields, now 54, how the lack of health benefits had impacted him. He's been fortunate not to need it; he's always been healthy, he told me. But he didn't get married; he never felt financially secure enough to raise a family.

For now, insurance means new contact lenses — and a sense of optimism. Fields is about to take another stab at college; he wants to coach and be an art teacher. "It's the children that keep me going," he said. "And the people who work with me."

::

Our next stop was Hoover Elementary in Mid-City Los Angeles, where the workers were too busy to talk to me. They serve 900 students in three rounds, three times a day — breakfast, nutrition and lunch — from 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

It was just past 11 a.m. when I arrived, 15 minutes before the first round of lunch. The kitchen was crowded with boxes, trays and metal carts, heaved, hauled and rolled along by employees in aprons, hairnets and gloves. It was steamy and loud. I was in the way; a few minutes in and I couldn't wait to get out.

It looked very different behind the scenes than it had from the cafeteria.

And, yes, the union rep was right: When I imagined myself in those workers' shoes, I found it hard to take offense at benefits that let a grandmother get a rotten tooth pulled or a mother buy the inhaler her asthmatic child needs.

That doesn't mean I'm sold. Hard times force tough choices; prudence sometimes has to trump compassion.

The real problem isn't cafeteria workers' medical benefits or custodians' pensions. It's the widening gap between rich and poor in this country; the combination of escalating forces that is putting middle-class life for many irretrievably out of reach.

The union calls it a "social justice" issue; a blow for workers' dignity. But in the mouths of Los Angeles Board of Education members, that sounds like so much posturing.

"We can be leaders in national healthcare," proclaimed board president Monica Garcia when the motion passed three years ago. "Whether there's money or not, it's time we moved," declared Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who owes her board seat to union money.

How about we become leaders in education, by directing more money to the classroom? How about we strike a blow for social justice in these tough times by teaching our students to read, to calculate, to think?

I put it like that to Gloria Lua, who worked without benefits for 15 years, doling out lunches and patrolling the playground at her children's South Gate elementary and middle schools.

She worked when she was ill, hauled her children to Tijuana for doctor visits. Three years ago, she was among the 2,300 or so workers who got full health benefits. At 59, she is finally able to treat her high blood pressure and unhealthful cholesterol.

"It is unjust on both sides," Lua told me in Spanish. "There are a lot of needs in the classroom, but my family also needs benefits. It is a little bit unfair.... I wish that we could have both things.

"But those people on the top, the president and governor, I think they spend money on useless things."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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