‘Lunch Ladies’ Determined to Keep School Jobs

Sally E. Bahner PhotoThe Board of Education is terminating its contract with Chartwell Food Service at the end of the school year and the 22 “lunch ladies” employed by Chartwell may be out of jobs. They will have to reapply for new jobs at various public schools under a different contractor.

They made their concerns known at last week’s meeting of the Board of Education’s Personnel and Finance Committee meeting, standing with signs as Renee DeAngeles, a 26-year Chartwell employee and Branford resident, addressed the committee.

“It’s my understanding that you don’t want to employ us any longer. There are 22 families and you’d like to eliminate our positions. I think that’s unfair,” DeAngeles said. “Why are you attacking a team of workers if you’re unhappy with the company?”

Sally E. Bahner PhotoBOE chair Michael Krause responded, “The bottom line is that the state of Connecticut is requiring us to go out to bid for our food service contract…. As part of that process we made sure the cafeteria workers have to get interviewed by the potential new food service company, if that is what happens. Chartwell still has a right to go forward as well, but the cafeteria workers are not employees of the Branford school district.”

DeAngeles said that they’ve always been together. “Now it’s just over? What about our lives, our livelihood? You think that’s correct?”

Krause responded, after a moment of silence. “It’s the contract.”

Greg Jerolman, a parent, said that he has “no horse in the race,” but called for transparency. “I want to see things done the right way. I keep looking for that. It’s not there.”

BOE member John Prins said, “It’s not a matter of us not wanting you.” He added that it was a business-to-business relationship and given Chartwell’s performance, the state said “fix it.”

“Your performance has been nothing but laudable,” said Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez. He said that the request for proposals has been done and he will ensure that everyone will be interviewed. “The issue is not performance… it’s a business relationship.”

It’s Business

Chief Financial Officer Don Neel had said at Feb. 21 meeting of the Board of Education’s Personnel and Finance Committee that Chartwell had been a state subsidy that is losing money and the district is required to make up the deficit out of its general fund budget (although it would not create a deficit).

Neel said that for 2016-17, the program ran a deficit of $127,443, broken down as follows: (1) Guaranteed subsidy (“not to exceed” contractually planned loss) of $49,486; (2) Chartwells’ management fee of $15,000 (only paid if the loss exceeds Guaranteed Subsidy); (3) Balance of loss subsidized by the Board of Education’s general fund operating budget $62,957. He added that because Chartwells gave up its management fee, the amount of subsidy required from the BOE was $112,443, not the entire $127,443 deficit.

Because the program was on track to lose a significant amount of money this year (the amount is not yet known), Neel elected not to renew the contract; the state also required that the food service contract go out to bid next year.

The lunch ladies are represented in Branford by Local 217. They are all Branford residents; the longest has been employed for 30 years. They recently signed a letter urging the Board of Education to include their contract with the RFP “so that we may continue to do our work with pride and dignity. Being part of the RFP will ensure that we can maintain our income and our livelihoods.”

Many have work schedules that coincide with their kids’ schedules.

“I’ve worked feeding Branford school children for 30 years. If I lose my job now, who is going to hire me at my age? I’m losing sleep at night thinking about what is going to happen if I lose my healthcare,” said Fran Amarante in a statement. She works at John B. Sliney Elementary School. She continued, “I was born and raised in Branford, and this job has supplied me with good, affordable healthcare and much needed income to support my family. The Board of Education wants to replace us and hire new workers at poverty wages with no benefits. Is this what we want for our town? Is this what our children deserve? This just isn’t right – how can they just plan to fire 22 Branford women, 22 of their neighbors?”

Another Sliney worker, Jackie Crescenzi, wrote, “I’m confused why, after nearly 19 years here, I should have to reapply for my job. I’ve fed thousands of Branford children for much longer than Hernandez has been superintendent. It’s insulting that I am being told I can reapply for my job, but no assurances that I’ll get it. Does that seem right?”

According to Ian Dunn, communications director for the union, Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez said the town will interview the employees so they can reapply for their jobs.

Dunn said that the current model is that when food services come in, they look to operate at a profit and pay poverty wages with no health care. He questioned that a 30-year employee who does a good job and receives benefits (but is older and may have health issues) would be hired under those circumstances. He added that the union has provided a good standard of living and a good healthcare plan.

He cited the town of Shelton, which experienced a similar situation when school food service provider changed from Sodexo to Whitsons and offered higher insurance costs and minimum wage salaries to new employees. The expectation was the new service would offer similar wages and benefits. It did not.

The lunch ladies plan to leaflet the town to bring awareness to their situation. They just want the new service to keep the same people.

“We think Branford will do the right thing,” said Dunn.

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posted by: Peter99 on April 16, 2018  1:44pm

The town should write the RFQ in such a manner that whomever the successful low bidder is, they would have to hire the ladies at their current wage rate with their current benefits. The wages and benefit cost is a know number and should not be a problem for a new company to roll into a bid. The playing field for all bidders would be level. The town has a moral obligation to these ladies and can fix this problem if they want to.

posted by: BevHills730 on April 16, 2018  2:28pm

Wow! What a terrible thing to do to employees who have served students and their community for so long.

posted by: Common on April 16, 2018  3:47pm

Yes, BOE said that the state required it to go out to bid, which is fine. But just as the RFP included that the current lunch ladies would be included in the interview process, they very easily could have required that the current staff and their current rates of pay be included in the bid. BOE is going to go with lowest bid, which is going to be based on the winning company paying minimum wages and benefits. Krause said it’s the contract, but he could have made the contract be whatever he wanted in the RFP. Another example of this Board just not getting it. Too bad we have to wait until 2019 to clear 3 more people off the Board. Let’s put the next Superintendent contract out to bid with a starting salary of $115,000 and see if Hamlet applies for it. I’m thinking no. But he can’t say we didn’t offer him the opportunity to stay. What a joke.

posted by: Brutus2011 on April 16, 2018  4:20pm

Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez said, “Your performance has been nothing but laudable.”

BOE member John Prins said, “It’s not a matter of us not wanting you.”

Branford BOE Chair Michael Krause told the lunch ladies that, “It’s the contract.”

What he didn’t say is that all contracts can be negotiated or that terms can be added, amended or eliminated before the parties sign.

What seems to coming through pretty clearly is that the BOE does not value these ladies who have served Branford’s children for years.

When are taxpayers, and citizens with school-age children, going to realize that paying high salaries to administrators and the like should take a back seat to those on the front lines serving our kids?

posted by: Castles Burning on April 16, 2018  4:54pm

I agree with much of what has been said by the previous posters. I applaud these women for standing up for themselves and asking for what is only fair and decent. As a Board of Education, you will be wanting to set a good example to the faculty and students about caring for workers and providing them with a living wage and good benefits. To replicate the sad reality of too many employers who do not pay employees a living wage would be negligent and not a lesson that I would want to send to those whom I am responsible for educating.

posted by: Maria432 on April 16, 2018  5:17pm

Branford BOE = wimps! King Hamlet rules! Most of the BOE (-2) are afraid of Hamlet. Sad that the children of Branford continue to suffer because of the “King!” He truly doesn’t care what’s best for the children of Branford…only what’s best for the “King!”

posted by: EyesWideOpen on April 16, 2018  7:06pm

Shame on the Branford BOE! These women have dedicated decades of their lives to serving Branford school children. The BOE can and should demand that their new company hire the current workforce. This is the least they can do. Keep fighting, ladies!! The community stands with you.

posted by: questionstatusquo on April 16, 2018  11:06pm

This situation is a mess. These public sector employees already gave concessions at the start of the academic year to benefit the BOE and Chartwells.  What did it get them, an interview to potentially keep their job.
This type of race to the bottom policy that seems to be creeping into all sectors of public sector employment (municipal and State employees) will only get us what we pay for, low bid, low dollar services. 
Nobody expects to get rich working for the public sector but they should be able to afford to provide for their families.  This isnt the Branford I have come to know and love to be a part of.
No Union busting by the BOE!