Cafeteria workers face potential layoffs

By Alex Gershanov
Published: February 2010

Cafeteria worker Franchesca Ratta, Newton resident and grandmother of four, has worked in South’s cafeteria for 30 years. She has seen 30 generations of students pass through its halls and has fed 30 generations of mouths. Come September, Ratta may find herself out of a job.

In an attempt to conserve budget funds, the School Committee is considering outsourcing the jobs of 65 Newton cafeteria workers to a private company. If the committee decides to privatize the food system, all of the current cafeteria staff will likely be laid off.

According to District Chief of Operations Mike Cronin, Newton Public School food services cost $900,000 per year to support. In other words, after subtracting revenue of food sales from costs of operation, the food service program is nearly $1 million over budget. Some believe that switching to a private company will lower costs for the city.

“With fiscal economy struggles and salaries on the incline over the past two years, every single program that is a constraint on the budget is an opportunity to save some money, Cronin said.

After having worked in the cafeteria for so long, current employees are worried they will have difficulty finding work elsewhere due to the current economic climate.

“We’re going to get a notice of two months to find a new career, cafeteria worker Karen Curtis said.

Like Ratta, much of the staff has worked at South for over 10 years. Having spent a significant amount of time in one occupation, it will not be easy for the staff to acquire new lines of work.

“How am I going to find a new career after 26 years? cafeteria worker Joyce Bocci said.

Many of the staff members have families to support and are dependent on this job to provide for them. Curtis, for example, is a single mother with grandchildren.

According to Principal Joel Stembridge, the question boils down to whether or not the district can provide healthy lunches and save money by outsourcing to an outside company. The School Committee will be weighing the pros and cons of privatization in the coming months.

If the committee chooses to privatize, the current staff will have jobs until June, after which point their career security is uncertain. Stembridge explained that there is a chance that the outside company may choose to hire the current staff as their employees if privatization occurs.

The cafeteria workers are all members of the Newton Public School Custodians Association (NPSCA). To protest the potential layoffs, the union began distributing pins with “Save Our Cafe and “No Outsourcing imprinted on them on January 27. They also plan to send a letter to Mayor Setti Warren through their attorney.

Head Custodian and Vice President of the NSPCA Ernie Peltier has worked at South for 50 years and has fought privatization before. He believes that maintaining local workers and supporting the town’s economy are necessary.

“These are women that live in Newton, he said. “Most are mothers.

Peltier and the NSPCA believe that saving money by outsourcing to a private company is an illusion. According to an NSPCA letter, “once current employee operations are dismantled, the contractors will inevitably leverage their situation to increase costs over time to levels at or above the [current] cost.

It is unclear what changes privatization will have on the food offered in the district. According to Cronin, food prices will be established by the School Committee. The new contractor, however, “would have recommendations on what to offer, how to offer it, and the price point at which to serve meals.

Curtis is additionally worried that new workers from an outside contractor will not be as compassionate towards students as the current staff. Curtis believes that many students were upset and angry at the news of possible layoffs.

“These are our kids; we’ve seen them grow, she said. “[If privatization occurs], the personal aspect will be gone.

Junior Jeffrey Alkins believes there will be mixed opinions on the matter. He feels that some students who welcome outsourcing fail to realize that food from a private company may not necessarily be better. He is also worried that many people will be out of jobs.

“Some of the cafeteria staff have worked at South longer than we’ve been alive, Alkins said. “South is their school too.

Junior Adam Scherlis, however, disagrees with the job-loss point of view.

“For every person who loses a job, someone at the private company will gain a job, he said.

Stembridge agrees with cafeteria worker Curtis about the relationship between students and cafeteria workers.

“It is always better to have people in the building that feel they are part of the same team than people who don’t necessarily feel the same responsibility, he said.

As of now, the question of privatization applies only to the cafeteria staff. Custodians and other union groups are not being considered for outsourcing.

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