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Opinion: Aquarium Firing/Hiring Needs Revisiting

A view on The Maritime Aquarium's Service Employees' Contracts

Norwalk, CT | Added on February 04, 2014 At 10:45 PM

There is no doubt the Maritime Aquarium is a tremendous asset to the City of Norwalk.  In fact, when I met the Deputy Mayor of the City of New York, and she found out that I was a Councilman (now Former) in Norwalk, the first thing out of her mouth was the Maritime Aquarium.  I truly support the mission and lease extension of the Maritime Aquarium and all the educational programs it offers to our great community.  It is without question, one of our jewels in this city.

However, it is disturbing to hear its recent practice in dealing with Norwalk residents.  It is my understanding that 11 workers were released of their duty without notice on December 31st.  The reason being the Aquarium decided to let go its unionized service employees in order to keep maintenance “in-house.”  The Aquarium sites an increase of 54% in costs over the past three years, yet the employees’ salaries including benefits only went up by 9% over that three year period.  I say good for the contracting firm as 45% of that increase was pure profit for them, but shame on the Aquarium for not doing its due diligence in looking out for their loyal workers that have been there in some cases for 14 years.  Additionally, the Aquarium re-hired service workers at $5 less per hour ($8.50) with no fringe benefits for an approximate total savings of $43,000 in 2014.  Now in July 2013, leadership at the Aquarium told the employees that they would consider hiring them back if they dismantled their union.  Of course the employees decided against that.  Moreover, these Norwalk workers were never considered or entertained in the selection or hiring process.  As a result, the Aquarium has been charged with Unfair Labor Practices by 32BJSEIU.  The issue is not about the savings; we all need to save and find creative ways to be more economical.  The problem here is that the City of Norwalk has been extremely generous to the Aquarium, in the tune of roughly $35MM, for the Aquarium to treat arguably our most vulnerable residents in this fashion. 

There seems to be confusion about a non-compete clause stating the Aquarium cannot re-hire the contractor’s employees for six months after termination.  In January, the employer sent a letter to the Aquarium, releasing any clause or conflict that would arise in the hiring process.  All of these workers that have been let go live in Norwalk, pay taxes in Norwalk, have children in our school system and spend their money in Norwalk which adds to our local economy.  I am stunned at such a bad practice by the Aquarium and such disregard.  This is part of a larger issue going on in Norwalk.  There seems to be a trend of disregard among some of our local non-profits to simply sit down and have a conversation with pertinent stakeholders.  I certainly understand lowering costs however; folks who live in our community should be given the same opportunity/courtesy as others, especially when their salaries are 1.4% of total revenue ($14.1MM in 2012) and the CEO makes $187,000. 

                  In October of 2013, while serving on the Common Council, I voted in favor to extend their lease to 2031 where no rent will be paid to the city or perhaps $1 per annum.  When the city issues $24MM in muni bonds to renovate the Aquarium and where the Aquarium has repaid less than $100,000, I believe tax payers and the City of Norwalk have done their piece to invest in our “economic anchor.”  The Aquarium should reconsider its approach in dealing with Norwalk residents as these folks are truly invested in our community.

Warren A. Peña

President, LULAC Council 703

League of United Latin American Citizens


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