Elk Grove Food Service Workers Find Joy In Sewing Masks, Protecting Their Coworkers

Workplace safety has taken on a whole new meaning since the coronavirus outbreak started.

The demand for personal protective equipment, especially masks, remains high. And for our sisters and brothers who remain on the front lines, every day they go into work is a day when they are risking their lives to keep essential public services going.

Several of our AFSCME Local 258 members who work for the Elk Grove Unified School District food and nutrition services department took that concern to heart when they started using their sewing skills to make their own masks. Now, they’re getting used to a new role: sewing masks for the greater good of the food services department and the Elk Grove school community.

“It was a need that needed to be filled, so I said, ‘Why not do it?’” said Andenise Thomas, a nutrition service lead at Edward Harris Middle School.

Before wearing masks in public became mandatory for all Californians, none of the food service workers for Elk Grove Unified were wearing masks at work even though they were still required to cook and provide meals on a daily basis to students in the community.

But one day, when Thomas arrived to work at the school district’s central kitchen wearing a mask, a fellow coworker noticed and asked her where she got her mask from. Thomas replied, “I made it at home, and I can make you one too.”

Word got around fast about Thomas’s good deed, and within a few days she got the attention of fellow Local 258 members Gabriele Andrews—who used to be a seamstress—and Susan McCutcheon, who decided they would band together to make as many masks as possible for their sisters and brothers in Elk Grove.

Food and nutrition services director Michelle Drake took notice as well, and she asked if the members wouldn’t mind shifting their daily jobs from working in the kitchen to sewing masks so that everyone could stay safe at work.

Drake allowed them to bring in their sewing machines from home and set up operations in the break room at the district’s central kitchen. Instead of waiting to get supplies from the state or federal government, the members took initiative to use the materials available to them to make the masks: old aprons, mop strings and other donated materials.

“With children not being able to come to school, so many families have been relying on those meals,” Drake said. “All the staff realize that we are all essential throughout this crisis, and if we don’t have the proper protective equipment, then it could hurt our operations. So the fact that the ladies stepped up to make the masks goes to show you that AFSCME and management can work as a team to get our goals realized."

For the three members, sewing masks every day for their coworkers has been a labor of love. Thomas and Andrews have been sewing in the district’s central kitchen while McCutcheon has been sewing from home. To keep each other motivated, they’ve built a makeshift assembly line to keep everything in order and they usually take turns playing music from their smartphones.

Andrews said she sees what they’re doing as a way to use their God-given talents to contribute to something greater than themselves when people need help the most. “We’re doing this to help out and to keep everyone safe,” she said.

McCutcheon said she just kept asking herself, “What would Rosie the Riveter do?”

“In many ways, this has become like a war effort,” McCutcheon said. “Our war is to fight against the germs so that our army can be safe every day.”