Airport Janitorial Contract Set to Go to Firm With Recent Complaints, Union Warns

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FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
St. Louis is poised to award a janitorial services contract for St. Louis Lambert International Airport to a firm that in recent years has drawn attention from both the EEOC and the National Labor Relations Board, records show.

Centaur Building Services, a St. Louis company recently acquired by Paris-based Atalian, submitted the lowest bid to the airport's request in January 2018. At $13.5 million, its bid was about $500,000 lower than its closest competitor. The city's Airport Commission is likely to approve the contract at its meeting May 2.

But the SEIU Local 1 chapter is not happy about Atalian's frontrunner status. It contacted the airport's director in March to detail two past cases involving Centaur that it believes should be enough to derail the bid.

In the first one, a black woman hired as a supervisor for the company alleges that subordinates called her the n-word and used other derogatory language because they were upset about Obama being reelected. After she complained to her supervisor, she alleges in a 2013 complaint to the EEOC, the trouble began. First her supervisor asked her to sign documents saying she was a general cleaner and not a supervisor. Then her supervisor changed her schedule. One week later, she was fired.

In her complaint, the woman also notes that she was told that a previous African-American in her position was fired for letting people go home early. Soon after, she says, her supervisor told her she could let people leave early if she wanted. "I refused," she wrote.

In 2015, the EEOC "found reasonable cause" that the events had happened as the woman described, and gave her a "right to sue" notice. She subsequently filed suit in federal court; the case appears to have been settled in January 2017.

Then, this February, Centaur was forced to pay $7,000 to a former employee to settle a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that it had fired him from his job as a janitor at Express Scripts in order to discourage union organizing. Under the agreement, the company also had to agree to remove any reference in the man's file to being terminated for cause.

LaSean Smith is a janitor at the airport under its current contractor, Regency, as well as a union steward. (Regency made a bid for the work, but wasn't among the top contenders.) He's hoping to stay on at the airport no matter who takes over the work — but says he has concerns about Centaur. Smith estimates that about 70 percent of the janitorial workers are black.

"It does make us a little uneasy," he says of Centaur's previous finding from the EEOC. "It makes us worried that they may not value the work we do. Racial problems in the past may pour over into the present."

Nick Desideri, a spokesman for the SEIU, says that the union recently received a response to its letter about Centaur from the airport. In the letter, the airport said it had reached out to the company and learned more about the incidents. However, it appeared ready to move forward with the vote.

"We are satisfied that Atalian is a responsible bidder and qualified bidder that submitted the lowest and best bid for the Airport's Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 Janitorial Cleaning contract and intend to recommend the award of the contract to Atalian," Rhonda Hamm-Niebrugge, the city's director of airports, wrote Wednesday.

Centaur's owner, Janine Joubert-Dulay, did not return two calls seeking comment.

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