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Pittsfield School Cafeteria Workers Seek Answers on Employment
By Jack Guerino, iBerkshires Staff
02:46AM / Thursday, September 24, 2020
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The School Committee heard from frustrated cafeteria workers at its Wednesday meeting.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School officials say they hope at some point to bring back most of the cafeteria workers who were told they would be laid off earlier this month. 
 
The workers and supporters held a rally on Park Square on Tuesday to express their frustration at being pink-slipped despite the work they had been doing during the pandemic. 
 
During public comment Wednesday, the School Committee heard from a few cafeteria workers who felt unappreciated and unsure about where their future lied in the school district.
 
"We stepped up when everyone else was in quarantine, everyone else got to go home and be safe with their families," cafeteria worker Sue Phelps said. "We stepped up and made lunches for all of these kids ... and we're just asking for a little respect ... we are tired of people leaving us in the dark." 
 
Earlier this month, Superintendent James McCandless reported that without students in the buildings, the 70 or so cafeteria workers would have to be reduced by two-thirds. Any callbacks would come once the school system transitioned to a hybrid model.
 
The cafeteria budget is separate from the rest of the education budget and sustains itself, largely through federal reimubursements. McCandless noted that it almost operates as a restaurant and while the district is fully remote, 90 percent of the cafeteria's "customers" are at home. 
 
Phelps said many of her colleagues were unsure if they are expected to return to work and need to know if they have to move on and find different employment.
 
Another cafeteria worker, Stefanie Koenig, said she was disappointed with the lack of communication and told the committee that some employees will not be returning. 
 
"I have already had four of my staff that will not accept their call back because of the lack of communication and the zero respect for what we do. Or they have already found other employment," she said. "We already were short staffed in our kitchen and when we get our call back at the end of October, you are gong to make our job impossible." 
 
School Committee member Mark Brazeau said the district has to work toward retaining these employees.
 
"We need to do what is right for all of these cafeteria workers and make sure every one of them is employed so they can keep their benefits," he said. "We labeled them as heroes back in March ... so we need to do what is right."
 
McCandless said he took issue with some of the comments made and noted the administration made sure cafeteria employees were kept working through the outset of the pandemic and the summer.
 
He added alternative interim positions for these cafeteria workers are being sought so they can stay within the district and maintain a salary and benefits.
 
McCandless added that administrators have respected union negotiations and did not plan to share confidential details. But he did note that the administration has spent hours at the negotiation table working toward reopening in a hybrid educational model.
 
"We understand that our employees are the ones that make things happen for the kids in our district ... nobody likes this," he said. "Many have been putting in hours trying to find ways to alleviate this and ideally we can come to an agreement that means returning a large number of students in a hybrid plan so our colleagues can be kept whole."
 
He said his team wants to accomplish this sooner than later so that the majority of these cafeteria workers could be retained.
 
Once in the hybrid model, there is still the anticipation of 12 to 15 job cuts within the department. McCandless did not have a clear date in which the hybrid model would begin.
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