Rilling, council leaders meeting with Aquarium officials about displaced workers

Erika Aguilera, who has been laid off from her job cleaning the Maritime Aquarium, protests Sunday.

NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling said Sunday he would be meeting with Maritime Aquarium officials and Common Council leaders Tuesday to see what, if anything, could be done for the 11 workers displaced when the Aquarium brought its maintenance work in-house.

More than 70 people took part in a Saturday demonstration organized by 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to call attention to the plight of the 11 workers who had been cleaning the aquarium before being laid off in December.

Aquarium spokesman Dave Sigworth said the group’s efforts were misplaced.

“The aquarium did not lay off any workers in question, but did not renew a contract with a cleaning company as part of austerity measures to control our operating costs and avoid a deficit,” he said in a press release.

The workers were employes of Premiere Maintenance Inc. That company held the maintenance contract for 18 years, a press release from 32BJ said. “(The aquarium) replaced the cleaners with mostly part-time workers making poverty wages and no health care insurance, paid sick days or any other benefits,” the press release said.

Norwalk Common Councilman David Watts (D-District A) and former councilman Warren Pena spoke at the rally. Both have questioned why the Aquarium did not hire the workers back after ending its contract with the cleaning company.

Premier Maintenance owner Michael Diamond said Monday that his company had not prevented the workers from making their own deals with the Aquarium. He did not say if they had been offered jobs on other cleaning crews run by Premier. The company employees both union and non-union workers, he said. Contracts for buildings of more than 100,000 square feet are filled by union workers.

State Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) was at the protest Saturday.

“We’ve been working now for many months to try to bring the aquarium and 32BJ together to come together with an agreement,” he said. “We haven’t got there yet. We are going to continue to fight each and every day to try to get that together so we have the justice for janitors so we don’t have a race to the bottom, we don’t have $8 an hour with no health benefits.”

Rilling, who was not at the demonstration, said Saturday the goal for Norwalk officials today is to “find out exactly what the details are and what we can do to resolve this problem. We want to sit down and see if we can’t come up with some solution,” he said.


14 responses to “Rilling, council leaders meeting with Aquarium officials about displaced workers”

  1. Casey Smith

    “We’ve been working now for many months to try to bring the aquarium and 32BJ together to come together with an agreement,” Bob Duff said. “We haven’t got there yet.”
    If this is an ongoing issue, then maybe the Aquarium was correct in not renewing the contract. If they can’t come to an agreement, that pretty much settles the matter. I don’t see how dragging the City into the negotiations and basically forcing the Aquarium to sign back on to the union contract is helpful. Of course, the City could raise the rent on the building and close the whole thing down and put everyone out of work. There is that option. But other than that, I don’t see many benefits.

  2. Mike Mushak

    I wonder where all the anti-union folks were when the city gave a $35 million free handout from Norwalk taxpayers to the Aquarium? I am a member and frequent visitor and understand the many benefits of the Aquarium, but I will never understand folks who support corporate welfare at such a huge scale but oppose any concern for the rights of workers to decent pay and jobs. This is more about a failure of management then it is about anything else, and I applaud the folks who are fighting for the well-paid Aquarium management to respect local jobs after they got such a huge handout from the community that built the place and helps pay their generous salaries and benefits.

  3. Oldtimer

    The union represents these workers in dealing with Premier Maintenance, not with the Aquarium. Why is the Aquarium getting all the heat ?

  4. Bill

    Mr. Mushak, since when is supporting a non-profit considered “corporate welfare”. No doubt the heads of the aquarium should take a paycut just as the newly hired janitors are doing, but equating this entities gift from the city with state grants to for profit entities is asinine.

  5. Mike Mushak

    Bill, so we can assume you supported unlimited taxpayer support of NEON despite management deficiencies? The term “corporate welfare” applies to non-profits as well. When it’s our money being used, we have a right to know it’s being handled well, and with careful considerations of the impact to the community. When reports of poor management decisions at the aquarium include mishandling of the cleaning contract that should have been negotiated earlier to avoid such a drastic move as firing the company, that affected a dozen local long-time employees regardless of who signed their pay checks, I think local politicians are justified in stepping in to protect those jobs and demand better management. That’s all.

  6. Joe Espo

    This has become quite the dilemma but I have a couple of Business 101 questions that might shed light on the issue.
    Let’s say the Aquarium hires a company called Tuliptree Landscape, Lawn Maintenance and Snow Removal. Tuliptree has five workers assigned to the Aquarium. The Aquarium has had a contract with Tuliptree for 10 years. Tuliptreee suddenly raises it’s annual contract rates by more than 50% because of increased costs for healthcare, and workers compensation. The Aquarium balks at the rate increase, terminates the contract and hires it’s own lawn crew. Because the Aquarium contract has been cancelled, Tuliptree fires the five employees assigned to the Aquarium because Tuliptree can’t afford to keep these workers on the payroll after such a serious loss of revenues. Question: Does the Aquarium have an obligation to hire the fired Tuliptree employees?
    Let’s say the Aquarium hires a company called Tuliptree Landscape Design to transform their grounds into Norwalk’s equivalent of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Tuliptree hires a crew of 50 temporary employess to install the wondrously designed Eden of natural blessedness. The project is completed in six months according to contract terms and Tuliptree fires the temporary employees because they are not needed any longer. The Aquarium hires new employees to maintain it’s wondrous paradise. Question: Does the Aquarium have an obligation to hire the fired Tuliptree employees?
    Just wondering.

  7. Mike Mushak

    Joe Espo, wow, you do like to get personal here don’t you. I take care of my staff very well and do not go around jeopardizing their jobs and my business by irresponsibly raising my rates 50%. First of all, healthcare costs and workers comp have not gone up 50% in any given year, ever. Workers Comp has stayed steady for over 10 years, with very modest increases, and healthcare costs have increased at the lowest level in decades, less than 4% a year over the past 5 years, mostly due to the effects of the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans never mention.
    So your hypothetical increase, if I were to ever be so stupid, would be based on my own greed rather than justified by any increase in hard costs, and I would never increase my rates by 50% and expect to keep my clients.

    Since my taxpayer dollars have gone into establishing and maintaining the aquarium, $35 million worth, and if my employees were local workers with families to feed and had worked at the aquarium for years and then were just sudddenly fired by me because I decided I wanted to get rich quick and raise my rates 50%, then yes, I would argue that the aquarium had an obligation to look after those employees who were partly paid through the generosity of the community they live in.
    Of course, that would mean that the aquarium would have to conduct itself in a compassionate manner, and manage its costs and organization better, and perhaps not pay its upper management so much. Is that too much to ask for a non-profit that exists solely because of the community’s heartfelt generosity in the first place?

    Your second example makes no sense. Temporary workers are not what we are talking about at all.
    Finally, this isnt just about the cleaning staff. Even full-time well-established staff have had to take pay cuts, and there are reports that this is more from poor management decisions over many years than any sudden decrease in revenues. It makes sense for our leaders to ask questions of management when so much taxpayer money is involved, and look our for the little guys who know the place well and have worked there for years. I wonder if our leaders had started asking questions about NEON earlier instead of sitting back and watching it implode, would that devastating fiasco have occurred?
    I applaud Mayor Rilling and Senator Duff, as well as community leaders Pena, Watts, Bowman, Simms, Melendez,and any others I missed, for speaking out and demanding transparency and accountability from the Aquarium on this issue, and for any compromise that can be reached to help these poor folks out who have lost their livelihoods that they need to support their families. Why is it always the lowest folks on the totem pole who get all the blame?

  8. Old Spice

    Question: What rhymes with Jennifer Herring?

    Answer: Susan Gunn.

  9. Average Joe

    This is the American way. Companies reevaluating their contracted services to reduce expence and overhead. Every single company in America does this on a daily basis….
    In unfortunate that the workers are caught in the middle but what else is new?
    It would have been nice if some consideration would have made for the workers that were about to lose their jobs based on this decision.
    The fact is there is no job security anywhere… that is reality in America today. Profits over people.

  10. anonymous

    ‘Profits over people’ really over-simplifies it. There are many businesses that are trying to stay afloat, trying to satisfy funders or taxpayers (like the Aquarium), trying not to go out of business. Every dollar saved does not necessarily go into an owner’s pocket or increase assets–more often than not it is money that goes to other bills, keeps them solvent or financially stable for one more month or one more year. Look at how many businesses left SONO this year because they were not profitable. That’s what losing money looks like, empty storefronts.

  11. Oldtimer

    Does this mean that when the City cancels the contract with City Carting and goes back to using City employees and City trucks, to save money, will we have to deal with a bunch of City Carting Co employees picketing City Hall because their jobs depended on the Lucrative contract City Carting Co had with the City ?

  12. Don’t Panic

    I’m curious how an organization that had the money to do a major renovation over the last two years, and who has not paid the City any meaningful rent because it always manages to break even without any meaningful profit can suddenly decide that its whole survival depends on getting rid of a handful of union workers making $15/hour.

    BTW, those who keep saying that the rates went up 50% in one year seem to have misread something. The articles before now seem to have suggested a 50% cumulative increase over a longer period of time.

  13. what?

    insurance increases have trended at 10% a year for at least 5 or 6 years now. A 50% cumulative increase over several years due to rising insurance costs is certainly possible.

  14. Mike Mushak

    Oops. I thought the 50% increase was a recent event. As far as insurance rates goes, my local agency Shoff-Darby has kept my annual increases below the inflation rate, about 2 or 3 %. If you have annual increases of 10%, I suggest you may be getting bad advice.

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