DOWNTOWN — Chicago Public Schools has entered into a $260 million contract with Aramark to manage building maintenance for more than 500 schools — a step some union janitors fear could lead to the privatization or elimination of 825 custodial jobs.
Their fears are bolstered by another district move to launch a pilot program that completely outsources the maintenance at 33 schools.
CPS officials said no layoffs are immediately planned for the 825 janitors that still work directly for CPS. Another 1,600 janitors are employed in the district through private contracts.
But most CPS janitors will have to reapply for positions in the system and will have to work new shifts at new schools starting in the spring. The contract for the janitors, who are members of SEIU Local 73, ends next year.
"A lot of the folks here are just happy they still have jobs," said one longtime CPS custodian, who asked not to be named. "I think everyone's under the impression that it's just a matter of time before we all become privatized. It ultimately means all the custodians are getting pushed out."
Aramark — which already runs the CPS food service — was awarded the three-year contract at a Board of Education meeting last month. A Maryland-based partnership between Magic Johnson Enterprises and international services firm Sodexo received a separate, $80 million contract to run the 33-school pilot program at that meeting.
The contracts will provide "measurable benefits that will make our schools significantly cleaner while also saving the district tens of millions of dollars," CPS spokesman Joel Hood said in a statement. " ... Currently, CPS utilizes over 1,000 suppliers for various facility management functions, and this contract will allow us to consolidate, modernize and improve the quality of service across all schools.”
CPS officials have said the contract will save the district between $40 and $54 million over three years through increases in productivity, reduced capital maintenance and energy efficiencies. CPS did not give more specifics on how the savings will be reached.
Already, CPS documents say the district has saved $50 million by cutting janitorial positions, saving money on supplies, making other unspecified "custodial reductions" and trimming overtime.
Principals will no longer be in charge of scheduling or purchasing supplies. In the past, budget cuts led some principals to choose between buying toilet paper or science supplies.
Private janitors will replace the majority of night-shift custodial positions currently held by Local 73 janitors that work for the district. Those janitors will then shift to daytime positions while maintaining the same pay — which averages around $15.90 an hour with benefits according to Adam Rosen, a spokesman for SEIU Local 73.
"Even though CPS has awarded Aramark a contract for facilities maintenance management, supplies, training and supervision, all Local 73 CPS custodial workers ... will remain Board employees with their Local 73 contract and public pension in place," the union said in a statement on its website. The employees will report to Aramark supervisors, however.
In total, Aramark will oversee 1,800 employees, documents show. But the contract states the company will use the new technology "to improve cleanliness with less manpower."
In a statement posted on its website, union officials said they tried to object to the management change but "when it became apparent that CPS intended to push through the Aramark proposal, the Union switched to Plan B to best protect the interests and job security of CPS Board Custodial staff."
Under the current contract, CPS can't legally privatize any bargaining unit jobs, Rosen said. But after that contract ends in June 2015, further privatization is possible. While janitors could be rehired by Aramark, the pay is typically far less with fewer benefits, union officials said. Aramark officials could not immediately provide average salaries for the company's custodial workers.
"It's obviously an issue we have to look at moving forward. We hope to work with CPS to show them public jobs should remain public," Rosen said.
Aramark was at the center of controversy last June when it was awarded a $97 million-a-year food service contract from CPS, beating out Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, the company that previously held the contract for over a decade.
The CPS inspector general is looking into whether the contract was awarded properly due to a connection between Aramark and CPS' new nutritional director, a former Aramark employee, sources said.
For the custodial contract, Whitney Young High School will serve as a training center for Aramark's staff, principal Joyce Kenner said at a local school council meeting last week.
At Young, there are 16 janitor positions, 13 of which will be shifted to other schools within the district. Kenner said while the new custodial program could be beneficial to the school, she was also wary of giving up oversight of maintenance to a private company.
"It depends on if it's too much oversight, if it's too much intrusion in the building," Kenner said. "They've not rolled it out totally to the principals yet."
Martha Newman, a 59-year-old janitor at Whitney Young, said she received her “bid sheet” last week in which she can request a new position.
The form asks current CPS custodians to request their preference for day or evening work and asks them to select their top 10 school choices. The form warns that final decisions will be made based on seniority and says there is “a limited opportunity for some custodians to retain their night position.”
“You are not guaranteed any of your choices. There is always the chance that more senior employees will be assigned your choices,” the form reads.
For Newman, who commutes to Young from the South Side, the prospect of being transferred to another school closer to her home is a good one. But, Newman said, she's skeptical there will be enough positions to accommodate all the night custodians.
“They told me I would keep my job, but where are they going to put all of us? You can only put so many people in the daytime," Newman said.