SHELTON — The city’s school board voted last month to renew its food service contract with Whitsons Culinary Group despite protests from the “lunch ladies” who said the company isn’t being fair in its negotiations with them.
Whitsons took over the food service contract for the school district last year from Sodexo Inc.
The company retained the 44 employees working there, but hasn’t yet come to an agreement with members of the UNITE HERE Local 217 union on a new contract.
Many of them attended the school board’s June 27 meeting wearing placards hung around their necks with dollar figures they say the company took from them in the form of lost paid time off and higher health care costs.
The union is trying to put public pressure on the school board to make better terms for Whitsons employees a condition of the company continuing to have the food service contract in the city’s schools.
In addition to holding demonstrations and testifying at meetings, the union has printed “WE ❤️SHELTON LUNCH LADIES” signs that have appeared on windows and lawns throughout Shelton.
Some Whitsons employees spoke during the public session of the meeting, asking the school board to hold off on renewing Whitsons’ contract.
Barbara Jelacic held back tears while speaking about having to support her family after the death of her husband.
“After the loss of my husband last December, my PTO (paid time off) time is what keeps my family with a roof over their head and food on the table,” Jelacic said. “Every penny goes into our family income and I cannot afford to lose any more. I have lost enough.”
Jeanette Schiffer said a new health plan the union agreed to move to during contract negotiations has squeezed her family financially. She told the board she has two kids in college and a husband fighting cancer.
“I was forced to make tuition payments late so that I could be able to afford chemotherapy medicine needed for my husband to help fight his brain cancer,” she said.
“The cafeteria workers should not be forgotten because we are the ones who service the children of Shelton with a smile on a daily basis,” Schiffer said. “We’re here to stay and we’re going to fight.”
Ann Kosiorowski said the union has tried to be reasonable in contract negotiations but have been told by the company’s representatives they don’t want to “set a precedent” that could prompt lunch ladies in other school districts served by the company demanding better wages and benefits.
“We’ve been more than willing to do what’s best for Shelton,” she said. “We’re not being unreasonable. Unfortunately the company that we are been forced to negotiate with is being unreasonable.”
In a prepared statement, Karen Dittrich, Whitsons’ director of marketing, says they’re negotiating in good faith with the union and will continue to do so.
Dittrich said the company offered to pay employees for up to 21 days paid time off, which “is in line not only with Whitsons’ practices for its other employees, but also with surveys of companies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.”
But she said the union has asked for more.
“Shelton’s union team members have expected to receive between 39 and 41 days of paid time off (ultimately at taxpayers’ expense since the school district reimburses Whitsons for that cost) for working less than 180 days per year,” Dittrich said. “That’s 22.77 percent of their time being paid for doing no work. According to the district, they would have to eliminate 2 teaching positions to pay for this time off. Is this the best way to serve the children of the Shelton community?”
While speaking to the school board Kosiorowski disputed Whitsons’ numbers. She said the union has asked for 34 paid days off.
The employees said they use the paid time off for things like snow days, which would otherwise be unpaid.
“It’s not a luxury, it’s become security for these women,” Kosiorowski said.
Dittrich also pointed out that the company won’t lose money, as Sodexo did previously.
“Whitsons was engaged by the Shelton Public Schools to be a prudent fiscal steward of the child nutrition program, after years of losses by the district,” she said. “For the first time in years, since engaging Whitsons, the food service program will break even for SY2017-18. For school year 2018-2019, Whitsons anticipates returning a surplus to the District.”
Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden echoed that point the day after the meeting.
He said the school board was happy with the work Sodexo was doing, but was on the hook for up to $200,000 in losses each year under its contract with the company, while Whitsons guaranteed a profit of up to $15,000.
“We had to do something to reduce our costs,” Holden said.
Some board members discussed the matter for about 10 minutes during the meeting.
Some asked whether the vote could be postponed.
“We seem to always be put in a position that are difficult where there are winners and losers,” David Gioiello said.
But Superintendent Christopher Clouet said the state requires school districts to have a contract in place by July 1.
If that deadline were passed, Clouet said, the school district might have to go out to bid again.
“It could put us in a situation where we could possibly have no or less than quality food services” by the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, he said.
The board then voted 5-4 to approve the contract.
Holden, Tom Minotti, Kate Kutash, Amanda Kilmartin, and Anne Gaydos voted yes. Kathleen Yolish, Darlisa Ritter, Jose Goncalves, and Gioiello voted no.
Ian Dunn, an organizer with the union, said the union and Whitsons met last week for negotiations, which are “ongoing.”
“We hope to reach a fair settlement as soon as possible,” he said.
Dittrich’s full statement is below.
Whitsons is built on a foundation of wholesome foods and strong family values, and has a long history of partnering with school districts to provide innovative food services for their school communities. We operate at many, union as well as non-union, locations where we have harmonious employee relations. Shelton School District contracted with Whitsons at the start of the 2017-18 school year to operate a quality and financially sound nutrition program, which we have done.
Since the start of the SY2017-18:
- Whitsons offered to pay up to 21 days off, or 11.66% of the school year. This is in line not only with Whitsons’ practices for its other employees, but also with surveys of companies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.
- Whitsons was engaged by the Shelton Public Schools to be a prudent fiscal steward of the child nutrition program, after years of losses by the district. For the first time in years, since engaging Whitsons, the food service program will break even for SY2017-18. For school year 2018-2019, Whitsons anticipates returning a surplus to the District.
- When school is not in session and a team member is not working (or not receiving pay), team members can, and do, apply for unemployment benefits.
- While we continue to negotiate in good faith, Whitsons has agreed to cover 75% of the monthly cost per team member to put them into the union’s healthcare plan C. This is a very similar plan as the one they were on previously before Whitsons took over the account and we have agreed to grandfather in any team members currently working less than 30 hours who were receiving healthcare when Whitsons took over.
- Since the beginning of the school year we have met 13 times with the union to negotiate an agreement, and even requested the assistance of Federal Mediation at the negotiating table. We have another meeting scheduled for next week.
On June 27, 2018 Shelton’s Board of Education voted to renew Whitsons’ contract for another year and we look forward to continuing to be provide a quality and financially sound program for the benefit of the District, the Shelton community, and the children we serve. By voting to renew the contract, the Shelton Board of Education demonstrated that they support the way we are operating the food service program.