Cafeteria workers fear pay cuts from new food provider

Approximately 40 of Shelton’s cafeteria workers have begun to negotiate the terms of their contracts with the school district’s new food service provider as they’re currently facing potential cuts of up to 12% of their annual incomes via their benefits.

It appeared to be all good just two months ago, as the Shelton Board of Education decided on Whitson’s Culinary Group as the district’s new food service provider.

Whitson’s agreed to maintain the district’s current staff of 41 cafeteria workers who are dispersed among the city’s schools, as well as maintain a similar salary and benefits package.

Fast forwarding to the present day, after receiving the news that they would be maintaining their positions under the new contract, the district’s cafeteria workers (Local 217) learned that Whitson’s is looking to change the terms of their agreement.

“They want us to take a 10% to 12% pay cut by losing affordable insurance,” said Ann Kosiorowski, who currently works as a lunch lady at the Shelton Intermediate School. “It’s unacceptable.”

The company is also proposing cuts to the workers’ paid time off, which isn’t exactly viewed as a luxury in this line of work, according to a union organizer representing Shelton’s cafeteria workers, Christina Cruz-Uribe. She explained that paid time off in this case is used to cover school closings or vacations.

“It’s income security,” said Cruz-Uribe.

Workers unsure of future

A cafeteria worker at Sunnyside Elementary School, Lillian Bartomelli, said losing access to affordable health care would drastically affect her family.

“My husband is self-employed, and my son was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer a few years back. Where is he supposed to get re-checked often?” said Bartomelli. “Without my health insurance, he won’t be able to go to the doctors.”

Janet Martin-Allen who has been a cafeteria worker in Shelton for 37 years, said she’s been through five other contract negotiations in her career but, this is the worst she’s ever seen.

“Whitson’s is threatening to cut my annual income by 11%. I simply cannot afford this,” said Martin-Allen, who explained that the company is targeting their benefits and health care.

As proposed by Whitson’s, five current employees’ families would lose their benefits entirely because they work under 30 hours. Benefits for workers who work from 20 to 30 hours is something workers such as Martin-Allen have fought for and been awarded in the past.  

Board of Ed has hands tied

The group of frustrated and concerned cafeteria workers, along with their supporters, attended the Shelton Board of Ed’s Sept. 28 meeting, where they asked for help on the issue.

Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet said as much as he appreciates the hard work of the city’s cafeteria workers, the board’s hands are tied.

“We are not legally able to participate,” said Dr. Clouet. “You’re not negotiating with us, you’re negotiating with the company.”

He added that the high deductible workers are being faced with during their negotiations is an issue that many others are facing as well.

Cruz-Uribe said the group has approached Whitson’s but hasn’t had any luck.

She said she also believes that the Shelton Board of Ed has more options than it is leading the group of workers to believe and may have been aware of Whitson’s approach to negotiating.

“We warned them that that’s what Whitson’s agrees to and then they don’t do it,” said Cruz-Uribe. “We believe very strongly that the Board of Education is party to a contract with Whitson’s and has the ability to engage in conversation with the company about the terms of the contract that the company signs with their workers, and we’re asking them to hold Whitson’s accountable for the standards that the board itself articulated both publicly, which is visible in their minutes, and to the workers.

“They present themselves as a family company who really care about their workers and are happy to work with unions, etc., but when they come in they drastically undercut workers’ standards. They make money off of the school lunch industry, which is not normally a lucrative place, by taking it out of the workers’ pockets.”

The minutes from the Board of Ed’s June 28 meeting show a brief discussion in which Clouet said the company would grant its new employees similar benefits.

An excerpt from the June 28 meeting reads as follows:

“Superintendent Clouet stated we have worked with Whitsons after a very well designed process that Dominic Barone and his team developed in terms of considering all the options, and we are absolutely adamant and were throughout the process, that the successful vendor would work with the current kitchen staff members and anticipate that all of them will be invited to interview and will be given a job with the new company that will be substantially similar to current salary and benefits.”

The superintendent clarified that the overall decision to sign a contract with Whitson’s came from the district losing an undisclosed annual amount in its previously aborted five-year deal with Sodexo.

During a June 21 Finance Committee meeting, finance assistant Catherine Araujo said the hope of the new contract with Whitson’s is to break even, which was speculated to take one to two years.

A representative from Whitson’s Culinary group was unable to be reached as of Tuesday, Oct. 3. A copy of the contract between the school district and Whitson’s was also unavailable.

The group of cafeteria workers known as Local 217 said they’re open to negotiations and they  want to settle as soon as possible because the company has agreed to help employees with their new deductible COBRA health insurance payments only until the end of October.