Planet Princeton

Princeton Cafeteria Workers Picket as Food Service Company Brings in Outside Workers to Serve School Lunches

Cafeteria workers march outside Princeton High in the snow this morning.
Cafeteria workers march outside Princeton High in the snow this morning.

 

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.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • krystalknapp

    Faith – will try to get a copy of the contract. The fee covers the administration/workers. I think the prices for meals are set in the contract. The food is paid for via these fees the students pay. Will look into it more. Thanks for commenting.

  • It is terrible to find out you have a new employer, and will not receive the benefits you’re used to, in spite of the supposed protection of your union. Sadly, this is not uncommon in school districts; we heard of similar situations as districts privatized custodial functions, for instance. I don’t know what legal clout the union has, but I think it is grossly unfair of the school district to allow this to happen, although I gather they were reassured (in writing?) that it wouldn’t. No responsible company would want their workers – especially food handlers! – to come to work when they’re sick, would they?

    It’s also hard to get a handle on the big picture not knowing what is included in the $61,245 food service contract. Is that for a whole academic year? If so, surely it does not include all costs, food and administration/staff? And which story is true: workers having their benefits cut via a new handbook at the start of the school year or Nutri-Serve finding food costs had gone up, thereby causing the cuts? (And could that really be a surprise?)

  • Adam

    Exactly. “Understanding” is vague language. That sounds to me like the workers don’t actually have a binding contract. I’m not trying to imply that Nutri-serve is in the clear, but I feel like some of this story is missing. It sounds like the workers had a union contract with the old vendor and when that vendor got the axe, the workers accepted job offers from Nutri-serve rather than be unemployed. It doesn’t sound like the workers’ union went to Nutri-serve’s management and secured them a new contract, and now, without an actual contract, Nutri-serve is going back on whatever promises they allegedly made.

  • krystalknapp

    It was their understanding the company was going to honor the terms of their contract with the previous company. They learned about the changes when they received a new employee handbook in the fall.

  • Adam

    One thing is unclear from all the coverage I’ve seen of this story. Do the cafeteria workers actually have a contract with Nutri-serve? Or did they just believe that Nutriserve was going to honor the terms of the contract they had with the previous food service vendor?

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