NORWALK, Conn. – Unemployed custodial workers who used to clean the Maritime Aquarium told their stories one by one before the Common Council Tuesday, where Mayor Harry Rilling promised to do the best he can to resolve the situation to the satisfaction of both parties.
That comment did not prevent a torrent of emotion.
“I have lost hope of living with dignity in this country of dreams so I am coming to you to ask you to help me get my job back,” said Maria Amaya, a single mother of three children, two of whom are Brien McMahon High School students and one of who goes to Jefferson Elementary School.
The workers, who were laid off by Premier Maintenance in December after the aquarium canceled the cleaning company’s contract, were permitted to speak to the council because the aquarium’s new lease was up for a vote as part of the consent calendar. However, the council voted unanimously to table the lease to March 11.
Consent calendar items are typically grouped together and voted on as a whole because they are expected to pass with little or no discussion. Occasionally, itms are pulled for further discussion.
Rilling began the meeting by informing everyone that the aquarium’s lease was on the consent calendar, that the politicians were doing what they could to be helpful to the laid off workers.
“We had a meeting this morning with several council people and some people from the Maritime Aquarium,” he said. “We are trying to work towards a resolution. Please understand that we feel a need to try to resolve this for everybody’s sake. We understand what you are going through. We are sympathetic to your needs and we are trying to do what we can to work with everybody.”
The first person to take the lectern made it clear that sympathy would not result in silence.
Alberto Bernardez, assistant director for 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said the aquarium gets funding from the state for community development.
“They should not be in the business of butchering people into minimum wages,” he said. “… How a mother like Erika Aguilera who has to support her kids through college can live on minimum wage in an institution that receives public funding. I just find that backward.”
Aguilera came next, asking how she would pay her mortgage. “They are treating us like second-class citizens,” she said.
Carlos Lainez spoke for his mother, an immigrant from Honduras who came here to make a better life for her children and has worked at the aquarium for 12 years, he said. She was making $6.25 an hour when she started, but then joined the union and made $13.25, with benefits including sick days and holidays, he said.
“I really worry about us,” he said, though he said he was not afraid that he would have to leave college someday to support his family. “It is not fair the aquarium has taken her job away after so many years so please help my mom to get her job back.”
Lilibetta Aguilera said it made her “very sad” that the aquarium is saving $43,000 a year by laying her and the others off when it gets so much money from the state.
Judith Paz, a mother of two, said she worked at the aquarium for two years. “It’s not easy having a job to pay me $13.25,” she said. “You can imagine how it is now when I can’t even have that.”
Maria Alicia Alcautara, an immigrant from Mexico for whom Bernardez translated, said she came here looking for better opportunities for her children, and had worked at the aquarium for nine years.
“Norwalk Aquarium refused to hire us back because we are union members,” she said. “… This decision puts us in a very difficult situation.”
Israel Navarro, 19, spoke as a member of the Hispanic community, the son of people from Puerto Rico who came to here because they were told “money grows on trees.”
“As I understand it, a union was made to defend and protect the rights of the employees,” he said. “They are not here because they want to be here, they are here because they had to leave family members in their own country, saying goodbye to mom and dad, because they know they’re not gong to have the chance probably to see them again. … It hurts me as the child of two Hispanics that are hard working to see that 11 families are going to be suffering a lot. To me that’s not fair. If I have to take action I will to defend their rights.”
The Rev. Nellie Mann said she was defending them as they are residents of South Norwalk.
“There is no excuse for this,” she said. “Shame on you Maritime Aquarium. … To me this is a form of slavery, racism. There is no excuse for it. Look at these single mothers. Do you know if they have food in their house? Do you know if they have diapers?”
Rilling repeated that there had been a meeting with aquarium officials. Majority Leader Jerry Petrini (R-District D), Minority Leader John Igneri (D-District E) and Councilman David Watts (D-District A) had been there, he said.
After the meeting he said he would not disclose details of that discussion “because we’re kind of both going back to the table and try to determine what ways we can resolve this issue,” he said. “I don’t want to presuppose what the Maritime Aquarium is thinking or what we’re thinking but we’r going to try to come to some kind of solution. I think we need to perhaps call in the maintenance company and talk to them as well.”
The 11 laid-off workers were not employees of the aquarium. They worked for Premiere Maintenance, aka PMI.
State Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) said Saturday that he and others had tried to work out the differences between the union and the aquarium.
“Since July 1 last year, the aquarium wanted PMI, which was the contractor, to get rid of the union, to be able to go too many months without benefits to save money,” SEIU representative Carmen Sargent said.
That would be a violation of PMI’s contract, she said.
“When (aquarium president Jennifer Herring) started talking about that, then we started talking to Bob Duff,” she said. “Then at that point (state Rep. Bruce) Morris and Duff were helpful in talking to her and it kind of faded away until December. So then in December she just decided just get rid of PMI so she could get rid of the union and the workers. Because she couldn’t maintain PMI and the workers, or could not maintain the workers non-union because they couldn’t reduce the salary and the benefits.”
Mann explained the slavery reference by saying she was basing the comment on personal experience.
“Slavery is when they don’t want you to do nothing, they just keep keeping you down, they keep pushing you down,” she said. “You climb that ladder, they still want to bring you back to discrimination. How do you do that to people? These are all the same people that are kind to people and yet they would hire more for $8 an hour? $8.50 an hour? What? Slavery is bad. They whip you down. They whip these people down. I know what slavery is, that’s why I talk about it. I know what it is to be put down and then you get a job because you’re part of a union and they’re going to fire you.”
Sargent said, “It took us 13 years to get where we are now. They lose it n one day.”
The Maritime Aquarium released this statement from Herring:
“While The Maritime Aquarium was not present at the Common Council meeting tonight, we did meet with the mayor and several council members to review the facts regarding the Aquarium’s decision to end its contract with Premier Maintenance, Inc., and to in-source our cleaning needs.
“The Maritime Aquarium is proud to be a vital part of the City of Norwalk and appreciates the support the city has provided over the years to enable the Aquarium to play its essential roles as neighborhood anchor, provider of science education and economic engine for Norwalk.
“The Maritime Aquarium is a non-profit organization and, like many organizations and businesses, has been adversely affected by this difficult economy. Traditional revenue sources are shrinking as attendance erodes and, as a result, the Aquarium has had to make tough decisions in order to balance the budget and sustain the institution for the benefit of the public.
“The decision to terminate our contract with Premier Maintenance was made as part of across-the-board cost-cutting measures that also included salary reductions for three senior managers, including the CEO, and several other steps. We were saddened to learn that Premier Maintenance, a large company that is part of a consortium with hundreds of locations, chose to lay off Premier’s workers when the Aquarium was forced to terminate a contract we could no longer afford.”