NORWALK, Conn. – After the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk ended its contract with a maintenance company, the former cleaning workers are protesting the decision that resulted in eight layoffs.
The layoff came as a total surprise, said Erika Aguilera, a 39-year-old Norwalk woman who worked at the aquarium as a cleaner for nearly 14 years.
“Two months ago, my boss called me into the office and said, 'Erika, you will be here for two more months,’ ” said Aguilera, who lost her job at Premier Maintenance Inc. in December. She joined a crowd of protesters Saturday at the aquarium who blasted the layoffs.
“As a cultural and educational institution, the aquarium should be invested in the growth and strength of the Norwalk community,” said Alberto Bernardez, Connecticut district leader for 32BJ local of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the cleaners. “But instead the aquarium is contributing to a dangerous and divisive economic decline.”
The aquarium’s lease with the city of Norwalk is up for renewal at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting. The union has said the workers plan to “take their case” to the council before the vote.
But aquarium officials defended the decision, saying it stopped working with PMI as part of “austerity measures to control our operating costs and avoid a deficit,” they said in a statement. The cleaning contract’s costs had risen more than 54 percent in the last few years, officials said.
“Like many nonprofits, we have had to make tough choices with respect to our costs over the year to stay on a sustainable financial path and to continue to provide an attraction to Norwalk of 400,000 visitors per year, educational services and programs for 175,000 kids, many of which are underserved, and other programs which benefit the city,” the statement said.
The decision to lay off the workers was made by PMI, not the aquarium, officials said. The agreement with the company precluded the aquarium from hiring the laid-off workers, according to the statement.
The Maritime Aquarium has since hired in-house cleaning staff on a part-time, seasonal basis. Officials said it would be unfair to lay off the new workers, many of whom come from Norwalk.
But protesters Saturday outside the aquarium criticized the fact that the new employees are paid lower wages and have no health benefits or paid sick leave as part-timers.
“At a time when our community is struggling to overcome crippling economic injustice, callous and irresponsible practices like these are not just counterproductive, they are destructive,” Common Council member Dave Watts said after the protest.