November 26, 2014

Schools’ Food Service Workers May Strike

Food service workers in Princeton’s public schools are threatening to strike, claiming that the new company hired by the district to provide food for students and staff has taken away their health insurance and sick day benefits.

Several food service workers appealed to Superintendent Stephen Cochrane and members of the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) at the November 18 public meeting, which was held at the Princeton High School Performing Arts Center in anticipation of a large number of attendees. The Board is in the middle of contract negotiations with the teachers’s union Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA).

Angela Clark who serves meals at Littlebrook Elementary School told the Board: “We do our best, we work hard, and this new company will not budge and doesn’t want to give us any benefits we had before. That is why 20 of us have voted to strike. We don’t want to do it, but it may come to that unfortunately. We are here to ask for your help.”

In June, the BOE unanimously approved a $61,245 food service contract with Nutri-Serve Food Management, Inc. for the 2014-15 school year; existing cafeteria staff were offered jobs with the new contractor, which replaced Chartwells School Dining Services. Chartwells had been serving Princeton’s schools for the previous 15 years.

Princeton Public Schools introduced the new food service provider as one that enables children to make good food choices and also promotes healthy eating for their parents.

According to a union representative, however, Nutri-Serve, which serves more than 80 other districts around the state, was unilaterally and unlawfully changing the terms of its contract with the employees.

“It’s a terrible thing,” commented Bridget Guarini, who has worked at John Witherspoon Middle School for over a decade. “We’re here working for the kids each and every day and I don’t think it’s fair that we have to come in to work even if we’re sick. We’re not asking for anything we didn’t have before, and we didn’t have too much before. We can’t make a living, and it’s not fair to us.”

Members of the Board sat in silence as workers expressed their feelings.

Princeton resident Dafna Kendal chided Board members for causing division between staff and administration, between teachers and parents. “Tonight I feel like I’m in a Dickens novel,” she said. “The lunch aides are asking you to help them, please have some humanity. They make $9 an hour and we’re not going to pay them for the day after Thanksgiving when school is closed? They are begging you to help them, please help them.”

At the end of the meeting, Superintendent Stephen Cochrane pointed out that Nutri-Serve and not the Board of Education is responsible for negotiating with its workers. “We care very deeply about our food service workers and we value very much the work that they do each day with our children, but we do want to clarify that the Board is not in negotiations with the union,” he said.

After the meeting, Mr. Cochrane sent the following message to parents: “This week we learned that the union representing our food service professionals is negotiating portions of its contract with Nutri-Serve, our food service provider. We care deeply about our food service workers, many of whom have been helping in our schools for years. As the men and women who work in our cafeterias are not employees of the district, the administration and Board of Education have no official involvement in the negotiations process. We are, however, hopeful that the contract will be settled quickly and in the best interest of all involved. In the meantime, Nutri-Serve has assured the district that there will be no interruption to the preparation and service of quality food to our children.”

Asked by email if there was anything the Board or he, as superintendent, could do in response to the plea from the food service workers, Mr. Cochrane said that he had “reached out personally to some of our food service professionals to get a better sense of their concerns. I have also been in touch with Nutri-Serve, and I remain hopeful that the issues of primary concern can be settled soon.”

Board member Patrick Sullivan expanded on Mr. Cochrane’s comments in a statement to Town Topics yesterday: “Nutri-Serve provides cafeteria services to the School District, and Nutri-Serve contracts with its employees through the 32 BJ Service Employees International Union. The Princeton Board of Education is not a party to that contract. While the negotiations between the 32 BJ SEIU and Nutri-Serve are ongoing, there is nothing that the Board of Education can lawfully do to influence the talks between those parties. We do care very much for our food service workers and are hopeful for a quick and fair resolution between their union leaders and the management of Nutri-Serve.

PREA representative John Baxter said that, while he wasn’t in a position to comment on the specifics of the dispute, he expressed support for the food service workers “in their right to a fair contract and a living wage.”

“If what I’ve heard is true, that the workers have lost their sick days, I am certainly very concerned about the health hazard this may present to students who are served by these dedicated workers,” said Mr. Baxter. “Fewer or no sick days certainly increases the likelihood that a food service worker will report to work when he or she is sick and should be home.”