During the coronavirus pandemic, a group of about 20 nighttime cleaning workers for the Montclair school district unionized with Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ. The workers, mostly immigrants who didn’t speak English as their primary language, demanded and won an annual contract with health benefits, sick days and better hourly pay.

But at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, the district did not award an annual night-cleaning contract, instead opting for month-to-month contracts. The workers, newly classified as temporary, were no longer eligible for union membership and were stripped of the benefits they had won.

The workers’ not having an annual contract with benefits is “atrocious,” Cathy Kondreck, Montclair Education Association president, told Montclair Local. Kondreck spoke about the need for annual contracts at a March 20 Board of Education meeting.

“Now that the district knows the workers are essentially being mistreated without it, I believe we have a moral obligation to provide the annual contract that will force their employer to provide sick days, vacation days, bereavement days, workman's compensation and, most importantly, health benefits,” Kondreck told Montclair Local. “In my opinion, there is zero justification for not doing just that.”

In an April 21 statement, Kevin Brown, New Jersey State Director of 32BJ SEIU, said the union stands "with the hard-working night cleaners of the Montclair School District as they continue to fight for the dignity of their jobs."

"We call on the Montclair Schools to immediately give the cleaning contractor an annual contract to provide workers with a living wage and affordable, quality health insurance," Brown said. "The district’s unwillingness to award an annual contract seems to be an attempt at union-busting and we will not stand for it.”

The district outsources night cleaning of its schools, having used Pritchard Industries LLC or ACB Services Inc. for the past several years and currently using Pritchard, Kondreck said at the March 20 board meeting. A message left with the Pritchard office April 13 has not been returned. 

On June 1, 2022, the board rejected five bids for annual custodial cleaning services. The board received the bids more than eight months earlier, on Sept. 21, 2021. The rejected bids included submissions from Pritchard and ACB.

The board advertised again for bids on June 6, 2022, and received them back on June 22. There were four bids, including one from Pritchard and one from ACB. At the March 20 meeting, about nine months after receiving the bids, the board rejected them all.

According to state statute, the district is required to award a contract or reject the bids within 60 days. Bids may be held longer at the request of the Board of Education, pending the consent of the bidders, the statute says. 

In response to several questions about the annual contracts, the bidding process and plans to rebid, David Cantor, the district’s executive director of communications and community engagement, said: "We switched to a month-to-month contract because responses to the original request for proposal exceeded our budget for night cleaning."

Kondreck said at the meeting: “No matter which company we chose to award the bid, the workers in the actual buildings at night are the same, some of which have been with us for over a dozen years.”

The workers clean up after teachers and students for eight hours, five days a week, making $16 per hour, she said. 

“You can ask anyone in the building, these employees are super hard-working,” she said. “I might not be advocating this hard for them if I did not myself know firsthand what kind of workers they are.” 

Under the annual contracts, the district paid nearly $50,000 each month to the contracted nighttime cleaning company, Kondreck said at the meeting. A review by Montclair Local of the district's financial reports for August 2019 to February 2020 showed the district paid ACB, on average, $58,436 each month.

But without an annual contract, the district has to pay more to the contracted company to ensure workers are provided a “prevailing wage,” Kondreck said. 

According to bills list reports over the past six months, the district paid Pritchard, on average, $235,733 each month. But there are large disparities between months — the March report shows a payment of $641,875; the February report shows a payment of $55,900; the November report shows no payment.

"The varying amounts in monthly payments reflect invoice payments for each month, not services rendered during that month," Cantor said Tuesday evening.

But the workers only see $51,000 in total each month, Kondreck said at the meeting. She spoke to the workers about how much they were paid to come up with that number, she told Montclair Local. 

“While I am incredibly angry at Pritchard Industries, the company that employed and paid them,  I'm also incredibly angry at the Montclair school district,” she said at the meeting. “If the district put out to bid, and then provided a company an annual contract, the employees would be considered permanent employees and their employer would have to, by law, pay them what should already be afforded them.”

When Kondreck has asked district leaders about the issue, she has been informed that they are working on putting together a call for bids, she said at the meeting.

“My hope is that the posting is definitely made public this week, and in a month's time one of the companies will be offered an annual contract and the employees finally are paid and receive the benefits that they deserve,” she said at the meeting.

As of April 15, Kondreck and the employees had not received a response from district administrators, she said. 

“We cannot continue to speak of the importance of equity and equality without also actually putting what we preach into our own practice,” she said at the meeting. “We can and must do better.”