Cleaners who say they were fired from The Ellis School want their jobs back

“It really is a gut punch,” cleaner Alyce Toombs said of losing her job.

The Ellis School

The Ellis School

Via Google Maps
Sarah Anne Hughes

Updated 4:41 p.m.

It’s a fairly routine occurrence in a sub-contracted industry like cleaning. One company loses its contract, another moves in.

That had happened before at Pittsburgh’s prestigious Ellis School, Alyce Toombs said. When the company she worked for, Quality Cleaning, lost its contract a few years ago, she was hired to work for the new one, she said.

But that didn’t happen in July, when workers and their union, SEIU 32BJ, said company Alder lost its contract after about a year and seven cleaners were given two-week termination notices.

“They just said that they were going with another company,” Toombs said a school employee told her. “She didn’t want any of us.”

The Ellis School declined to comment on the contract situation. General Cleaning Inc., the company that now has the contract and took over Aug. 1, did not return a request for comment; neither did the United Steelworkers local that represents the company’s employees.

“The Ellis School believes that it would be inappropriate to publicly comment on the private contractual relationships that we have with the many businesses with whom we work,” Diana Hurd, marketing and communications director for Ellis, said by email. “Speaking generally, Ellis’ commitment to providing a well-functioning, efficiently-operating, and safe educational environment for our students, families, and employees requires us to regularly evaluate those relationships. As a new school year approaches, we are confident that the businesses we work with will help Ellis to build on its proud 100-year history of educating girls.”

Toombs said she and other fired workers went to the school last week to meet with the employee who informed them of their termination. That employee, she alleged, refused to come out for a meeting.

“It really is a gut punch,” said Toombs, who worked part-time at Ellis while she attends school full-time to become a chef. She called cleaning “respectable, honorable” work — “not glamorous.”

Sam Williamson, Western Pennsylvania district leader of SEIU 32BJ, said the workers who replaced Toombs will be paid less than $9 an hour, while Toombs would have made more than $13 after a November raise.

“We honor and respect the kind of institution Ellis is,” Williamson said. “We respect the values that they lift up and the work they’re doing to build new generations of women leaders for our whole region. This is a decision that seems inconsistent with their history and values.”

He added that there’s “no excuse for an institution like Ellis to have any employer working anywhere on the campus for poverty wages.” According to Ellis’ form 990 for fiscal year 2015, then Head of School Robin Newham was paid $166,125 in reportable compensation during that 12-month period; Randol Benedict, the former head of school, received more than $300,000 that year.

SEIU 32BJ has launched a petition to support the workers and ask for Alder’s contract to be reinstated. Late Tuesday, an SEIU representative said the union had filed a complaint against General Cleaning, Inc. with the National Labor Relations Board; the complaint alleges that the cleaners weren’t hired because of their association with SEIU 32BJ.

Toombs said she hopes to get her job back, but isn’t sure what’s next. What she does know is that she can’t accept a lower wage, which she said would lower morale.