Letter: Aquarium should not shun laid off local workers

By Warren A. Peña

To the Editor:

There is no doubt the Maritime Aquarium is a tremendous asset to the City of Norwalk. In fact, when I met the Deputy Mayor of the City of New York, and she found out that I was a councilman (now former) in Norwalk, the first thing out of her mouth was the Maritime Aquarium. I truly support the mission and lease extension of the Maritime Aquarium and all the educational programs it offers to our great community. It is without question, one of our jewels in this city.

However, it is disturbing to hear its recent practice in dealing with Norwalk residents. It is my understanding that 11 workers were released from their duty without notice on Dec. 31 – the reason being the Aquarium decided to let go its unionized service employees in order to keep maintenance “in-house.”

The Aquarium cites an increase of 54 percent in costs over the past three years, yet the employees’ salaries including benefits only went up by 9 percent over that three-year period. I say good for the contracting firm, as 45 percent of that increase was pure profit for them, but shame on the Aquarium for not doing its due diligence in looking out for their loyal workers that have been there in some cases for 14 years.

Additionally, the Aquarium re-hired service workers at $5 less per hour ($8.50) with no fringe benefits for an approximate total savings of $43,000 in 2014. Now, in July 2013, leadership at the Aquarium told the employees that they would consider hiring them back if they dismantled their union. Of course the employees decided against that. Moreover, these Norwalk workers were never considered or entertained in the selection or hiring process. As a result, the Aquarium has been charged with Unfair Labor Practices by 32BJSEIU. The issue is not about the savings; we all need to save and find creative ways to be more economical. The problem here is that the City of Norwalk has been extremely generous to the Aquarium, to the tune of roughly $35 million, for the Aquarium to treat arguably our most vulnerable residents in this fashion.

There seems to be confusion about a non-compete clause stating the Aquarium cannot re-hire the contractor’s employees for six months after termination. In January, the employer sent a letter to the Aquarium, releasing any clause or conflict that would arise in the hiring process. All of these workers that have been let go live in Norwalk, pay taxes in Norwalk, have children in our school system and spend their money in Norwalk which adds to our local economy. I am stunned at such a bad practice by the Aquarium and such disregard.

This is part of a larger issue going on in Norwalk. There seems to be a trend of disregard among some of our local non-profits to simply sit down and have a conversation with pertinent stakeholders. I certainly understand lowering costs; however, folks who live in our community should be given the same opportunity/courtesy as others, especially when their salaries are 1.4 percent of total revenue ($14.1 million in 2012) and the CEO makes $187,000.

In October 2013, while serving on the Common Council, I voted in favor to extend their lease to 2031 where no rent will be paid to the city or perhaps $1 per annum. When the city issues $24 million in muni bonds to renovate the Aquarium and where the Aquarium has repaid less than $100,000, I believe taxpayers and the City of Norwalk have done their piece to invest in our “economic anchor.”

The Aquarium should reconsider its approach in dealing with Norwalk residents as these folks are truly invested in our community.

Warren A. Peña



9 responses to “Letter: Aquarium should not shun laid off local workers”

  1. D Maggs

    Go away Pena. Please.

  2. Oldtimer

    These people were not Aquarium employees, they were employees of a contractor the aquarium had outsourced the work to, probably in the belief that would save money. There is a lesson there for the City about outsourcing to save. The Aquarium has learned the expected savings don’t last when jobs are outsourced. You and I may have compassion for the now displaced contractor employees, but the Aquarium owes them nothing. We disagree with how the Aquarium has handled this and demonstrated an anti-union position, but we also expect very careful stewardship of their funds. Their may be a better compromise between our opinions and Aquarium management’s, but the Aquarium owes these displaced contractor employees nothing.

  3. Bruce Kimmel

    Good article. These workers live in Norwalk, pay taxes in Norwalk, send their children to schools in Norwalk, and shop in Norwalk. Assuming the data cited in the article is correct, I am certain an agreement can be reached among these workers, their union, and the Aquarium. Unfortunately, previous articles about this issue made it seem as if the salaries and benefits of the laid off workers had increased 54% over the last three years. That is clearly not the case. If their salaries and benefits together increased by 9% over the last three years, that is something I believe the Aquarium can easily absorb.

  4. LWitherspoon

    “I say good for the contracting firm, as 45 percent of that increase was pure profit for them…”
    Let’s ignore for a moment what appear to be some serious mathematical errors. How does Mr. Pena know what portion of the cost hike were “pure profit” for the contracting company? The contracting company’s fee increases could have been due to higher costs arising from any number of possible factors – Obamacare, higher taxes, union fees, etc.
    It’s rare in a competitive, low-skilled market that a company can simply raise its rates by 54% and not lose the business to a competitor. Mr. Pena would have us believe that the Aquarium is run by heartless individuals, the contracting company is greedy, and the union workers were unfairly treated. However there is without a doubt more to this story.

  5. Oldtimer

    Any bets that the company executive salaries went up a good deal more than 9% over that same 3 year period ? Why is nobody using the name of the contractor ? Is it the same company the City uses at City Hall, and did their bills to the City go up by the same percentage ?

  6. the donut hole

    Mr. Pena is right on one thing directionally. We have subsidized the maritime $24 million in financing. However, I would think a ‘finance’ professional like him would understand the time value concept of money and the cost of money. Then you are talking more like $50 million. Where are the golf course critics now?

  7. anonymous

    The Aquarium did what it is supposed to do, keep it’s product high end and its costs low. The Aquarium ‘owes’ none of Norwalks 85,000 citizens a job.

    My insurance rates have increased by 10% to 18% every year for the last 3 years. That’s where that 54% increase went. Obamacare is there for people now. All these workers would qualify for subsidies most likely.

  8. Bill

    The aquarium and the workers should come together and hire them back for a good portion of what they made. The workers don’t need a union for that. Unions are completely moot to this conversation.

  9. Oldtimer

    Union fees as an expense to an employer ? Last I knew the union members pay union dues, the employer pays nothing to the union. In this case, the contractor raised their rates 54% over a three year period and did, in fact, lose the contract, as you said, but not to a competing contractor, but to in-house employees hired by the Aquarium.

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