I Love My Job, But . . .

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The author on the job at Wesley Food Pantry in Urbana

The University of Illinois is part of the US land-grant university system. Each state has a land-grant university that operates a Cooperative Extension Service, which provides non-formal education to agricultural producers and communities in each county in Illinois.

I work for the University of Illinois Extension SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education) [editors’ note: SNAP is colloquially known as food stamps] program for Champaign County. I am a community outreach worker in the INEP (Integrated Nutrition Education Program) office, which also houses EFNEP Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. U of I community outreach workers are part of the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Council 31, Local 3700 union, in which I have played an active role as a steward and bargaining committee member.

In this role, I teach nutrition education to SNAP-eligible community members. Our mission is to encourage community members to consume healthier foods. We offer free nutrition classes, distribute healthy recipes, and offer samples of those recipes, so that community members can taste how great healthy food can be.

I partner with community members at food pantries, soup kitchens, and Pre-K through 12th grade schools to teach 10 curricula targeted to various age groups. I’m responsible for contacting the directors of non-profit agencies to ask if they will allow me to advertise my nutrition classes to their clients and to use their space to teach the classes. I’m responsible for recruiting participants for my class. Our classes teach community members to eat healthier by lowering fat, salt, and sugar, and eating more fresh fruit and vegetables. We also offer tips on how to exercise and save money on groceries.

Each class we teach takes a lot of time and energy to prepare. We prep and take all the food, kitchen equipment, and learning materials to each class. I’m responsible for shopping for the food at the best price and maintaining a credit card, as well as tracking my mileage to and from classes.

My favorite part of the job is talking to all the different people in our community. We have a very diverse community, and I love to learn about how other cultures approach food and nutrition. I have learned that Champaign County is packed with interesting people doing very exciting things.

Unfortunately, the job I love doesn’t pay a living wage. At 37.5 hours per week, I am a full-time worker who received a salary of $12.77 per hour when I started in 2017. I now make $13.79 almost 6 years later. My wages are so low that I myself qualify for Link/SNAP benefits. The university touts a work/life balance, but I must have a second job to make ends meet. Some of my colleagues are working three jobs to do so.

For the past two years I have watched as businesses large and small are paying a starting wage of $15, including all benefits such as medical insurance and 401Ks. To add insult to injury, the U of I gave the employees one pay grade higher than community outreach workers an 18 percent pay raise in the fall of 2019. Meanwhile, I have gotten a 10 cent raise each year for the past 4 years, which doesn’t cover any cost-of-living increase, or medical co-pay increases. AFSCME’s wage proposal for a living wage, submitted in bargaining, was dismissed out of hand. We were told that our job is entry-level and doesn’t require a raise.

My perception as a U of I employee has diminished my view of the university. I wonder how such a distinguished university can treat its employees with so little respect. We are all interdependent on one another: we all need each other to do our jobs, and to make the university run well. I think that the U of I should pay me and my fellow community outreach workers around the state a fair living wage, with a cost-of-living increase and merit raise each year. After all, we are the face of the U of I in Illinois communities.

Born and raised in Champaign, Del Jacobs has worked at the University of Illinois since 2017. She is currently a steward and e-board member for AFSCME Local 3700, and also sits on the local’s bargaining committee. In addition, she represents her local on the Champaign County AFL-CIO Central Labor Council.

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