CHELSEA — Workers who claim they were fired by the Episcopal Church's oldest seminary after more than two decades of service have taken their protest to the streets — erecting a giant protest rat in front of the building.
The five maintenance workers say they lost their jobs at the General Theological Seminary late last month.
The workers, who are all members of the Service Employees Union 32BJ, had been with the seminary for decades, but said they were given letters on Thursday, July 27 notifying them that their jobs would end on Tuesday, July 31.
"That's three business days for 25 years of service," said Errol Morgan, 49, who started at the seminary in 1988 and said the firing means he will be unable to pay Catholic school tuition for his two 8-year-old daughters.
"This is a church — I thought they would have sympathy for human beings. Isn't that what they're all about?"
Maia Davis, a spokeswoman for 32BJ, said the union has lawyers looking into whether the seminary violated a city law giving building service workers 90 days of protection against layoffs if a building changes contractors.
The men were officially employed by Aramark, a maintenance contracting company for schools and universities.
The workers had originally been employed directly by the seminary until Aramark was brought on in 2009, Davis added. The seminary agreed that any new contractors would continue to employ the same workers with the same wages and benefits.
Sandra Johnson, the seminary's Executive Vice President and Chief Financial officer, maintained that GTS believes the dispute is between Aramark and its employees, and refused to answer any questions about the Displaced Workers Act.
According to the letter sent to the men by Aramark, the seminary ended its contract for maintenance and cleaning services with Aramark effective Aug. 1. Aramark, which did not respond to requests for comment, did not say when it was notified by the seminary.
Morgan and his fellow protesters insist their beef isn't with Aramark, but with the seminary itself, which they said owes them more courtesy.
The men have launched a concerted effort to push the seminary to do what they call the right thing, handing out flyers in front of the seminary claiming that the seminary has turned their lives into "a living hell."
"I've been here 25 years. I've spent half my lifetime here," said Godfrey Johnson, 52, who fears that he won't be able to afford health insurance for his family after his current plan runs out at the end of the month.
"I just want what's due to me."
The men said the layoffs are a continuation of the church's ongoing cost-cutting plans. The financially-struggling seminary developed a "Plan to Choose Life" strategy in 2010, selling off many of its properties and bringing on financial heavyweights, including Sandra Johnson who was a former corporate banker at Citibank.
Workers said they want the courtesy to be able to discuss the layoffs with the seminary directly.
"We just want them to sit down and talk to us," Morgan said. "They see how many years I put in here. We're like family, and then they turn around like they don't know us."