Ellis School Says Issue With Former Cleaning Company Was Performance, Not Wages, As Union Alleges

Aug 14, 2017

Officials with the Ellis School, a private all-girls preparatory school in Shadyside, said their decision to switch cleaning contractors earlier this month was because of performance issues, not wages, as the union representing the school’s former cleaners has suggested.

The workers hired by the former contractor were not retained with the switch. The local chapter of Service Employees International Union filed an unfair labor complaint last week against the new contractor, Homestead-based General Cleaning, alleging that the workers were fired because of their union membership.

Alyce Toombs, a former worker for Alder Services, cleaned the Ellis School for 18 months. She was one of the workers who lost that job two weeks ago.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Alyce Toombs was one of the workers fired from the contracted job. She rallied with a group of protesters Monday morning outside the school.

“There was somebody who worked here who had been here six years [through] maybe three or four companies,” she said. “He moved seamlessly with each company. Now this has happened, and it’s like the union doesn’t matter, but we have to show them today that, yes, it does.”

Diana Hurd, director of marketing and communications for the Ellis School, said in an email that “after a long and arduous notification and communication process with our former cleaning service, we concluded that the needs of our students were not met to our satisfaction and made the informed decision to identify and secure a new, unionized cleaning service that meets Ellis’s standards for quality in time for the start of the academic year.”

Ellis said six custodians were hired under the former contractor. SEIU said seven employees were working at the school.

Following SEIU’s complaint and discrimination allegation, the United Steelworkers retracted its representation for the new employees from General Cleaning. At the time of their hire, the workers were USW members.

Sam Williamson, 32BJ SEIU Western Pennsylvania District Leader, said it’s unusual for a new contractor to not retain the current staff. He’s calling on the school to reinstate the workers.

“Parents pay two to three times the tuition of what a cleaner earns in a year working at this school," he said. "I’m mortified that the people who clean and maintain a safe and clean learning environment for these students and staff are making poverty wages. It’s just wrong. It’s not what I expect from a school that prides itself on its exemplary legacy of empowering and inspiring women.”

SEIU 32BJ members rally outside of the Ellis School Monday.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

According to SEIU, the new workers are being paid $8.68 per hour. The former workers were paid nearly $13 per hour.

Students' tuition ranges from $9, 500 per year for pre-kindergarten students to $28,500 for 12th graders.

State Representative Ed Gainey, whose district includes the Ellis School, joined the rally Monday and said employers in the city must commit to paying a livable wage.

“The Ellis School can and must do better by restoring livable, union jobs for these hard-working men and women as soon as possible,” he said.

Hurd said the school was legally entitled to use another contractor.

“Outside parties appear to be waging a campaign to bully Ellis into changing course on a decision it has already made that is in the best interest of our students and within its legal right to make,” she said in an email. "Ellis is committed to making decisions that are in the best interests of our students and their families. On the issue of cleaning services, our priorities are protecting student hygiene, safety and an overall clean learning environment throughout all of our facilities."