SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WAND) - Several employees of Springfield Urban League's Head Start spent Wednesday evening picketing outside their employer's office in an attempt to obtain better wages and benefits.

The organization provides early education services to more than 600 central Illinois children. The picket group consisted of teachers, teacher assistants, bus drivers, maintenance workers and food service staff.

"We work so hard to take care of these kids, and they don't want to pay us anything," said teacher Brittney Johnson. "They want to take and take and take and not give us anything."

"We come in, we give our blood, sweat, and tears, and we teach these babies because we know that they're our future," added LaQuesha Akers. "But ... we don't have what we need to take care of them."

The picketers' main request is a raise.

"We're picketing for money," Johnson said. "Most of our staff are working second jobs. And most of our families have kids they have to take care of. We are asking for more money. We deserve more money."

The employees said they make less than $13 an hour on average, and that they're being offered just a 1% raise every 3 years.

"We have our own families that we have to support," Akers said. "And a 1% raise every 3 years is just not (going to) cut it."

They also said their benefits are inadequate. And so far, months of negotiations have not yet produced a resolution.

"They need to take care of their employees," Akers said. "One percent is not enough!"

Springfield Head Start has responded to the picketing. In a statement, the organization said:

"The Springfield Urban League values our Head Start & Early Head Start employees, working daily to ensure a culture and work environment that supports fair and high-quality services. We have witnessed the dedication of the Head Start staff and have in-turn provided opportunities internally for their professional and personal growth and development, such as:

1.    Participation in market compensation review to ensure fair and competitive pay,

2.    Paying for higher education,

3.    Ensuring full and fair benefit packages including short- and long-term disability,

4.    Employer contribution retirement plan,

5.    14 holidays plus benefit leave accrual, and

6.    Employer-sponsored health insurance that requires a less than 10% employee contribution.

There has been no exchange of dialogue relative to negotiating wages nor health insurance premium costs to date.  Unlike many entities, for years, there has not been an increase in the employees’ contribution toward health insurance premium costs.  We do not understand how this display supports our shared agreement to negotiate in fairness, respect, and dignity for both parties.  This action is unfortunate and we perceive it as the Union’s attempt to justify its existence by making false claims.  We are in the midst of an unprecedented move to consolidate two facilities, moving children and staff from a site that did not have air conditioning, into a state-of-the-art facility that will house 17 classrooms.  Additionally, while preparing for this transition, rather than staff continue on lay-off status from the summer, for those who no longer qualify for their positions, according to state and federal regulation, we afforded staff the opportunity to participate in certification classes that increases their skill level, both professionally and personally.  The Union, at the direction of AFSCME representative, Erik Hostetter is misleading staff in hopes that the false claims will overshadow all of the good work that continues to be performed by the Springfield Urban League on behalf of low-income families and the hundreds of staff we employ here.  These actions are unfortunate and disingenuous."