Cafeteria workers in Princeton marched in front of the high school with picket signs today to demand that they receive their benefits back from Nutri-Serve, the public school district’s new food services contractor.
The strike involves 20 workers at six public schools. The workers say the strike is a last resort after attempts to negotiate new employment terms failed.
“We want nothing more, nothing less, than what was in our contract,” said Bridgette Carini, a cafeteria worker at John Witherspoon Middle School who has been working in the district for 16 years.
“We are dedicated to the kids. We love the kids, that’s why we are here. We love Princeton and we work hard, in good faith. We didn’t wan to do this. We really didn’t. Nutri-Serve wouldn’t even meet us half way,” she said. ” It took us six years to get a little bit of a contract that was decent — six years to get what we want, and that is not even a lot. We are not making tons of money. Now we can’t even get uniforms. We used to get six. Now we get two.”
Many of the workers make $9 an hour, Carini said. A person just starting out gets paid $8.50 or $8.75 an hour.
It was the workers’ understanding that the terms of their contract would remain the same with the new company. Without bargaining with the union or informing workers of the changes, workers say Nutri-Serve slashed the benefits. The company eliminated paid holidays and paid jury duty, and cut a slated wage increase in half from 40 cents to 20 cents more per hour, workers say.
The workers used to get paid for six holidays a year, and used to have six sick days a year. Now they have to earn them back over the course of this year at the rate of half a day a month.
“We don’t have sick time so we have to come to work when we are sick because otherwise we can’t get paid,” Carini said. “A lot of the workers are single women with children. That’s not fair for them to come to work sick and be touching the food.”
Nutri-Serve brought in outside workers to serve students lunch today. Several schools were unable to serve breakfast because of the strike.
Many of the workers who are on strike have been serving food to school children in Princeton for more than a decade.
“I feel sad. I love the kids,” said a worker who has been with the district for 35 years. “I feel so bad because first time in so many years I don’t feed the children.”
In June the school board approved a $61,245 food service contract with Nutri-Serve for the 2014-15 school year and the cafeteria staff members were kept on. Many parents lobbied for the new company to be chosen to serve healthier meals to students.
Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane sent parents a note this morning about the strike, saying the district was taken by surprise this morning. The school district also sent out a robo-call to assure parents that meals will still be served.
“The union leadership did not inform Nutri-Serve management in advance, so the serving of breakfast at some of our schools was hampered,” Cochrane wrote. “Lunch will, however, be served as planned in all of our schools today and for any additional days the strike may continue. Breakfast too. Nutri-Serve has assured us that their management team will be on site with additional workers to prepare and serve meals according to the established menu.”
Cochrane said he previously spoke to the management of Nutri-Serve regarding the status of the food service workers.
“I was assured that all of the employees who qualify for health benefits have received those,” he said. “Moreover, I was told that all of the food service professionals received a 40 cent per hour raise beginning in September and that no employee makes less than $9.15 per hour.”
Cochrane said he was hopeful the union and Nutri-Serve would work out the rest of their issues at their next negotiation session on Dec. 17.
“Thank you for your understanding with this process,” Cochrane wrote.” As a district, we continue to place our focus on striving to do what is in the best interest of our students.”
A message left at Nutri-Serve’s office early this morning was not returned as of 2:45 p.m.
Nutri-Serve has said the company had to cut benefits to keep the food services program within budget because of rising costs.
The union, 32BJ SEIU, has filed unfair labor practice charges against Nutri-Serve. The union represents 10,000 workers in New Jersey.