Editor's note: This article was originally published Sept. 6, 2011.
Sitting in a downtown coffee shop last week, before a single school lunch had been served this school year, women who spent a collective 57 years making and serving lunches in the public schools worried that the private company hired to do their jobs wouldn’t care about the kids the way they had.
“In my 10 years cooking food for the kids in Wellesley and managing the kitchen at the we never had one complaint from the Board of Health,” said Sarah Pozzi, one of the 25 town workers who lost their jobs when the School Committee
“It was like our own kitchen. The people they brought in don’t have our experience,” she said.
She was speaking before the Board of Health found at the Middle School cafeteria last week.
Pozzi is one of the 18 food service department workers who did not take jobs with Chartwells, although they were given first refusal as part of the contract the town bargained with the company.
“We had a meeting with (School Superintendent) Bella Wong and she told us, ‘Don’t worry, this is a good thing. You’ll all have jobs.’” Pozzi said.
But according to Pozzi and the others who spoke last week with Patch, the jobs offered by Chartwells paid less, sometimes significantly less, than the jobs they had with Wellesley, and more importantly, only four of the 25 offered full benefits.
“It was humiliating.They made me an offer I had to refuse,” Pozzi said.
Debbie Haley, a single mother who worked for 15 years in Wellesley Public, said she was offered $1 less an hour than what she had been making, which she would have taken.
“But they didn’t offer health insurance,” she said. “I need the health insurance, that’s what I was working for.”
A call to Chartwells for comment last Friday was not returned. A message left with the school business office was also unanswered.
The School Committee voted unanimously last spring to privatize the school lunch department after discussions that began the previous year.
The decision was made in the interest of saving the town money, primarily in the cost of benefits, including health insurance and pension costs.
The decision also came after the discovery that the school lunch account was in because families left bills unpaid and the school department had no punitive plan in place to collect the outstanding balances.
Last week, approximately six months after the initial disclosure of the debt, there is still an outstanding balance of about $80,000, although just $10,900 is from “old debt” left unpaid for more than a year, according to figures provided the School Committee by School Business Manager Ruth Quinn Berdell.
The School Committee approved a plan to collect the debt which includes the use of constables to collect unpaid balances on “old accounts.”
This is another topic that frustrates the former town employees.
They say the lunch payment system, as they understood it, was never intended to run on credit, as many parents assumed when they were allowed to essentially run a tab for their children’s lunches.
“When the system started it was supposed to be a debit system,” Haley said. But, she said, if a balance was negative and we didn’t serve a lunch, it got embarrassing for the kids so the administration told us to just process them through the line.
“We were told, “let it go, let it go. And then they turn around and made it seem like it was our fault that we couldn’t manage the system and collect the money,” Haley said.
“I feel like we were set up,” Pozzi said.
The women, some of whom asked that they not be directly quoted, say they feel insulted by the town.
“We were working for our retirements, we worked hard for our pensions and now we have nothing,” Haley said. “I was one year away from being vested.”
“Our jobs weren’t eliminated, we were replaced,” Pozzi said.
She said she spent every morning making macaroni and cheese and other hot dishes from scratch, showing off scars on her forearms to prove her point. She said they also got orders of fresh fruits and vegetables from a farm in Holden, MA each week, and that whenever necessary they spent their own money to spiff up the lunch lines with ribbons, baskets and seasonal decorations.
“And now we’re hearing how the new company’s food will be so much better than ours. No one ever told us to improve our food. We would have changed the menu if we were asked to, we would have composted. We would have done anything to keep our jobs,” Pozzi said.
They all said they were worried that the new employees wouldn’t be sufficiently trained in time to get good lunches out to “our kids.”
“I stayed because I loved those kids,” Pozzi said.