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Fmr. Cafeteria Workers Say They Were Betrayed by Town

They also worry about food quality under the new management, saying they had years of experience, "loved those kids," and treated the kitchen as their own.

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.

MJ September 06, 2011 at 12:45 PM
I sympathize with these workers but the taxpayers paying their salaries do not get pensions, the majority of them. I've lived in Wellesley 10 years & my taxes have doubled. I'm tired of seeing my older neighbors have to leave because they can't afford their taxes anymore. I would love for lunch ladies to get paid well, with benefits & pensions but it is not realist compared with other similar workers. I've been laid off twice in the last decade & it is a struggle. Just because people live in Wellesley doesn't mean they're rich.
Red Rover September 07, 2011 at 03:16 AM
The Food Service Department (FSD) operated on a revolving account. The revenue brought into the account would pay the bills necessary to run the department and to pay employee wages and benefits. The School Committee had previously raised the costs of the lunches to expedite this. The FSD was able to meet these expenses regardless of the existing debt. It is not the terminated food service employees that have caused taxes to rise in of Wellesley. Take a look at your administrators and teachers, among others both past and present that are drawing large salaries and are or will be drawing 80% pensions. That is where your tax dollars are going, not to twenty low paid self-supporting food service employees.
myrtisdavis September 07, 2011 at 07:12 AM
I learnt from "Penny Health" that Instead, try saying, "There's medically necessary treatment that I'm seeking." Remember, words have power and insurers are all about finding limitations and exclusions if you say the wrong thing.
ljfbos September 07, 2011 at 02:49 PM
CNN Money magazine recently ranked Wellesley as the 17th top earning town in the U.S. How can it be that we couldn't afford to offer our schools' cafeteria workers health insurance? Shame on us.
Wrangler21 September 21, 2011 at 03:19 PM
Do you honestly think they were working for the Town of Wellesley's Food department for the salary? These women do not get paid well. Please. These women worked for their health benefits. To me, the amount of money they saw on their check weekly was NOT worth the struggles they all went through. Most of them worked another job to help survive the struggles of today's economy. You should be more concerned with why the $100K debt is really not a concern for the town.

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