For two decades, Shelton resident Lillian Bartomeli has worked as a “lunch lady” in the cities schools, serving up lunch to students every school day.
Because her husband is self-employed, her family relies on the health insurance she receives through her job, Bartomeli said, including her son, who was diagnosed with melanoma.
But now she has no insurance as her union, UNITE HERE Local 217, negotiates with the Whitsons Culinary Group for a new contract for the 41 members.
This summer the Shelton Board of Education made the switch from Sodexo, Inc. to Whitsons to run the school’s food services. Whitsons hired all of Sedexo’s employees, but now it is trying to cut the benefits the employees enjoyed under their contract with Sodexo, according to Cristina Cruz-Uribe of Local 217.
About two dozen of the union’s 41 members were outside of Central Office on Long Hill Avenue Wednesday ahead of the Board of Education’s monthly meeting to bring awareness to their plight for a fair contract, Cruz-Uribe said.
Shortly after the school board signed the contract with Whitsons, the union began talks with the new company, Cruz-Uribe said.
“We wanted to assure their jobs and standard of living, which is modest,” she said. “We were adamant about protecting those standards.”
When the Board of Education approved the contract, it did so with the assumption that Whitsons would offer “substantially similar wages and benefits,” Cruz-Uribe said. “That was their expectation, but that is not what’s happening.”
Instead, Whitsons is offering a contract that increases insurance costs to employees, calls for new employees to earn minimum wage where in the past they were hired at higher rates, and raises the number of hours worked per week from 20 to 30 to qualify for insurance, Cruz-Uribe said.
The company also wants to eliminate paid time off, she said, which employees used in the event of snow days, which would otherwise be unpaid.
A call to Whitsons, which is based in New Britain, was not returned Wednesday.
Editor’s note: The company sent the Valley Indy a prepared statement Oct. 5.
“It’s about income security,” Cruz-Uribe said. The unpaid days allow the employees to be paid for a five-day work week. Without them, the employees struggle to get by on smaller paychecks, she said.
“Our position is that they are creating a crisis for these people living in Shelton,” she said.
Only a couple of the 41 employees live outside of the city, but those too are Valley residents, she said.
Janet Martin-Allen has worked for the district for 37 years. She got the job when her children were going through the school system, and it worked out well with her schedule aligned with her children’s school schedule, she said.
But the new contract Whitsons is offering is unacceptable, she said. “The offers we are getting are insulting and offensive,” she said.
Bartomeli said the insurance she had through Sodexo ran out this month, and the prices she has received for COBRA insurance run thousands of dollars a month for her family, a price they can’t afford.
“I’m afraid the insurance they are offering us is going to be very expensive and not good at all,” she said of Whitsons offer.
Her son is now not able to go back to the doctor for checkups, and she is unable to get biannual blood tests she needs for a thyroid condition, Bartomeli said.
And because she works 25 hours a week rather than 30, she may not even qualify for insurance, she said.
“These jobs and benefits are fundamental,” Cruz-Uribe said. She is hoping the Board of Education will urge Whitsons to match the wages and benefits the employees received under Sodexo’s contract, Cruz-Uribe said.
But school board Chairman Mark Holden said there isn’t much they can do.
“We love our lunch ladies, but they are not our employees,” Holden said. “We don’t have any ability to influence negotiations.
“We would love to see them come to an amicable agreement,” he said.