NEW YORK, N.Y.—As a group of teachers facing layoffs the next day tried to negotiate better terms with the Bright Horizons chain of child-care centers on Sept. 29, a group of parents, children, and other teachers milled about under a construction scaffold outside on West 23rd Street. A girl in a salmon-colored T-shirt sat in a stroller and lettered “I Love Teachers” in orange marker on a piece of cardboard, and then drew a rainbow sign under it.
When the teachers emerged shortly after 5 p.m., they had bad news. “We had three questions that we raised, and we got a flat no across the board,” Darralyn McQuitter, a teacher at Bright Horizons’ Fedkids center at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan for the past nine years, told the about 20 people.
Bright Horizons, which runs more than 700 child-care centers in the U.S., informed workers Sept. 10 that it was withdrawing from 14 of its 29 contracts to run centers for federal workers’ children, including those at 26 Federal Plaza and 101 Willoughby St. in downtown Brooklyn. The about 60 teachers at the two centers were given until Sept. 30 to decide if they wanted to apply for jobs at other Bright Horizons centers in the city or with Imagine Early Learning, the company taking over at the two centers.
The teachers, with organizing help from the Democratic Socialists of America’s labor branch and the United Electrical Workers union, are demanding that Bright Horizons and Imagine Early Learning guarantee them new jobs, severance pay for one or two months “until we are able to start at a new center,” and pay for accrued vacation and sick time. Bright Horizons’ negotiators agreed to give them vacation pay, but nothing else, they said.
“We were told that they would only consider us,” Jazmin Rendon, a teacher at 26 Federal Plaza for three years, told LaborPress. She’s thinking about applying to both companies, “but there’s no guarantee for either.”
“We feel a guarantee should be our right. They were the ones who broke the contract,” she added. “What we’re asking for is not impossible.”
The company negotiators, said teacher Mayra Reyes, also claimed that the teachers had already received severance pay in early April, when all furloughed employees got two weeks of “bridge pay” after the centers closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, to cover the gap between their last paycheck and their first unemployment-benefits check.
“They didn’t give us any answers when we asked, ‘How is that severance pay?’” said Reyes, who taught 2-to-5-year-olds. “How can a company that prides themselves on putting students first put their teachers last?”
Bright Horizons did not respond to questions submitted by LaborPress.
The company, founded in 1986 and based in Watertown, Mass., runs about 1,100 child-care centers in the U.S., Britain, the Netherlands, and India. It was sold to the private-equity firm Bain Capital in 2008, but its stock is now primarily owned by various investment firms. The closing of about 850 of its centers due to the COVID-19 pandemic slashed its revenues in the second quarter of 2020 by 44%, to $294 million, according to figures the company released Aug. 5. However, it had reopened more than 300 by July 31, so about 390 of the 710 in the U.S. were operating.
“We have made incredible progress during the second quarter,” CEO Stephen Kramer said in a statement, adding that the company’s clients’ support had demonstrated “the financial resiliency of our model.”
Teachers’ pay is low, however. McQuitter said she started at $11 an hour. Rendon started at $16.75, but got a raise of between $2 and $3 when she got her associate’s degree. She’s now working on a degree in early childhood education at Brooklyn College.
Chris Dols, a cost and value engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers and vice-president of Local 98 of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, criticized Bright Horizons for pulling out of the federal contracts despite rent-free facilities and generous subsidies.
“They really created a mess,” he told LaborPress before the rally. “We went through a big fight last year to retain subsidized child care.”
If the government won’t set labor standards for contractors, he told the group later, “it’s up to the labor movement to do it.”
Since the 26 Federal Plaza center closed, he’s been working at home and taking care of his 23-month-old daughter.
“My child would run into the arms of the teachers every morning,” Daphna Their, Dols’ wife, told the rally. “You can’t put a number on the kind of work they do. What’s disgusting is that Bright Horizons goes on TV and says teachers are heroes, and they’re paid a pittance.”
Reyes says she’s waiting to see if new contractor Imagine Early Learning will have jobs open, because it will depend on how many parents come back to the Fedkids center. Rayna Menoz, another laid-off teacher, said she’s going to look elsewhere.
“I don’t want to stay with the company because of how they acted,” she said.