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27 maintenance workers lost their jobs and benefits in Moorestown Public Schools. Their union is fighting to get them back.

The school board voted this summer to end its agreement with a union contractor for custodial services, terminating jobs held mostly by Latinos who have worked there for decades.

An employee of the SEIU Local 32BJ (foreground) meets with laid-off workers (from left) Confesora Ortega, Maritza Orozco, Yadira Velasquez, Frecia Hernandez, Félix de los Santos, Luz Ortega, and Luis Orozco.
An employee of the SEIU Local 32BJ (foreground) meets with laid-off workers (from left) Confesora Ortega, Maritza Orozco, Yadira Velasquez, Frecia Hernandez, Félix de los Santos, Luz Ortega, and Luis Orozco.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

When students at the six schools in the Moorestown Township Public School District began classes on Sept. 8, 27 of their cleaning and custodian workers had been terminated from their jobs, losing their income, health care, and other basic benefits.

Last May, the Burlington County school district began the bid for the cleaning contract, a process they undertake every four years. Four companies bid this year — two companies with unionized employees, and two without unions — and, on June 28, for the first time in decades, the school district decided to award the contract to Healthcare Services Group, a Bensalem firm that employs nonunion workers, which bid at a low price, said Luz Gárate, district leader and grievance department director at the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ.

The union has filed charges against Healthcare Services Group with the National Labor Relations Board in Philadelphia and the board is currently investigating, Brown said. The union says HCSG has discriminated against the employees by refusing to hire them, changing the terms and conditions of employment by eliminating the existing health insurance plan, and refusing to bargain with the 32BJ Union. Region 4 of the NLRB is considering recommending to the NLRB that it seek preliminary injunctive relief.

After months of seeking answers, the union will meet with the school board on Wednesday to discuss the layoffs. The union is asking for the district to rebid the contract and return all of the workers to their jobs.

The Inquirer reached out multiple times to HCSG and Moorestown Township Public Schools. A spokesperson for HCSG declined to comment. The interim Moorestown school superintendent and the school board secretary also failed to return repeated calls seeking comment.

On June 30, when the 27 union employees at the schools went to work, they were told their contract was not going to be continued and they needed to hand in their badges and leave. The workers were employed by ABM in New York. The previous companies who had held the maintenance contracts always kept the same workers, but the new company HCSG did not do this, Gárate said. This group of workers who were all BIPOC and mostly Latino — some who have worked in the school system for two decades — lost their jobs.

One was Luz Ortega, 37, who had worked in the school district for 15 years and was three months pregnant when she found out she had lost her job right after she finished emptying a trash bin during her morning shift.

In times of a pandemic, health insurance is more critical than ever, but for Ortega, who was the main provider of her household and used to provide health care to her family with her job at the schools, losing her insurance also meant losing access to her prenatal checkups.

She has worked at all the schools of the public Moorestown system, but this year she was working at the William Allen Middle School as the lead cleaner and the person in charge of all the keys at the school.

“I felt awful because I didn’t expect it. After 15 years, they left me in the air,” said Ortega, who is six months pregnant. “I just want there to be justice and that they know we also have a voice.”

Ortega and all the other workers kept cleaning schools while they were closed during the pandemic and during the summers. She only took a month off when her first son was born in March 2020, returning at the end of April. She still kept working during the months hardest hit by COVID-19 even though she had a newborn at home.

Now, she says, nobody wants to hire her because she is well advanced in her pregnancy.

Felix de los Santos, 57, a maintenance worker at Moorestown High School, says in his 12 years working at the school system, they had changed companies three times and they all came interested in keeping the existing personnel.

“Now we have two evils: COVID and unemployment,” de los Santos said.

His wife and two daughters also received benefits from his job backed by the 32BJ union.

De los Santos and many of his colleagues tried reapplying for his former job in the same school system with the new company, but most either did not hear back from HCSG or were rejected. Only five workers, have been able to get their jobs back thus far, but with fewer benefits, de los Santos said. He has also looked for other jobs, but they don’t offer wages as close as he had before or offer benefits.

Luis Orozco, 30, was using the 32BJ union benefit of legal support through his cleaning job at George C. Baker Elementary School. He was in the midst of the process to bring his wife from Nicaragua to the U.S. so he could offer her a better life quality. Then, he lost his job.

“I felt terrible because we were in an immigration process and everything was going very well until this happened,” Orozco said. “The Nicaraguan Embassy said I could continue with the process, but now I would have to pay out of pocket for the lawyers who used to be provided by the legal insurance of the union membership with my job.”

He also tried to apply to his job with HCSG and was rejected and hasn’t found another job that offers comparable salary and benefits.

According to the 32BJ union vice president, Kevin Brown, this happened because the Moorestown School District failed to offer any “direction” to the firms bidding on the maintenance contract to maintain wages and benefits.

Brown said new companies in New Jersey usually retain the school district’s workers is because it’s practical. The state law dictates that every worker in school settings has to pass a security clearance done by New Jersey State Police, and since existing workers have already been vetted it is easier for companies to continue their employment.

“The reason we ask companies to offer health care at zero cost is because the majority of workers in these areas only make $13-$15 an hour and they cannot afford to pay these premiums or deductibles,” Brown said.

“At the end of the day, the only thing these workers want is to work, and to have a fair wage and benefits,” said the communications spokesperson of the 32BJ union, María Eugenia Lanao.