MONTEGO BAY, St James — There is growing tension at the St James-based Cornwall College between members of the school’s administration and two former cooks who believe they have been treated unfairly over the last five years.
The former canteen workers, Cleon Watt and Nanetta Jarrett, have been employed at the high school for eight and 15 years, respectively. Watt was the school’s assistant cook while Jarrett was the head chef.
They told the Jamaica Observer that their plights started in 2018 after the school’s administration decided to divest its canteen to a concessionaire, resulting in them being displaced and out of their jobs.
The three canteen employees stated that they were left confused as the school’s principal, Michael Ellis reportedly told them that their positions would be made redundant. While awaiting their redundancy letters Watt and the other employee were sent to work with the new staff at the concessionaire while Jarrett was placed at the school’s boarding house where she prepared meals for the student athletes.
But according to Watt, that temporary fix was similar to placing a bandage on a gunshot wound as they would later learn that the Ministry of Education and Youth (MOEY) did not give Cornwall College the go-ahead to terminate the workers. This, he said, was the start of major drama between them and the school’s administration.
“We started working with the concessionaire and the principal came back after that to tell us that the Government said it doesn’t look good for us to be working with the concessionaire and he is giving us a stipend every week, so he stopped us from working with them,” Watt told the Sunday Observer.
He continued, “Then he sent us where they placed Ms Jarrett up by the boarding house, where we started preparing food for the athletes. We were there until COVID came in and when we came back to school they said they are having problems with our work ethic. They said we are not reliable enough to be working as cooks there but they still did not terminate our contract and they still had us there.”
The employees were eventually served with redundancy letters by the school but they were dissatisfied with the monetary figures stated. These redundancy letters were shared with the Sunday Observer.
Disgruntled by this turn of events, both Watt and Jarrett visited the education ministry’s office, seeking answers.
“We went to the ministry, not to find out about our jobs but [to enquire] about the redundancy money because we do not have any justice at Cornwall College. We explained our situation and an employee there read the letter. She said that she did not know anything about it because they didn’t receive a letter from the school and they did not send us a letter…plus the letter did not have the Ministry of Education’s letterhead — it only said Cornwall College,” Jarrett explained.
The confused employees were then advised to go back to work.
“They gave me a redundant letter and said that they were going to pay me up. After seven years they gave me $235,000, and when we went to the ministry they said that it was unlawful dismissal so we should go back to work,” Watt told the Sunday Observer.
When they returned to work Watt said he was surprised to learn of his new assignment as the school’s sanitation and resource officer. The former chef explained that instead of preparing meals for students, he was now expected to clean the school’s bathroom and ensure that the classrooms were secured after school.
That, he said, further drove a dagger into what was already not an ideal situation.
“When I went back they sent me to clean toilets. As a chef, how can you send me to go clean toilets? I suggested that they send me to a classroom or the library but they are saying that I am incompetent because I don’t have four subjects,” Watt said.
“How can I be competent enough to clean toilets but I am not competent enough to organise books? I refrained from doing such work so now I am there just sitting down not doing anything,” he bemoaned.
Jarrett was also unhappy about her reassignment to the school’s book room. Though the woman was given the post of educational resource officer at the school, she told the Sunday Observer that the school’s handling of the situation has left a bad taste in her mouth.
“You want to take me and put me in a book room. You don’t even send someone to train me. I don’t know anything about books — I have been a chef since I was 18 years old and I am in my 40s now,” the woman complained.
Another sore point in this disagreement comes from the fact that the school had handed over redundancy monies to these employees. The employees were asked to repay those monies in full, immediately. However, Jarrett told the Sunday Observer that she was unable to do so.
“We had a meeting with the Ministry of Education in St James and now they are saying that there is no redundancy in the post and if we want to resign, we can. So we are saying that they had already made the decision to make us redundant so why not follow through? What changed? If there was no redundancy in the post, why did they pose redundancy to us?” she questioned.
Jarrett continued, “They put the money in our account and now they are telling us that the Government is putting them under pressure for that money. But they gave us the money and said we are being made redundant so, of course, we used the money to pay up some of our loans and bills because we thought we were going to be without jobs.”
At the same time Watt said that he, too, had qualms about the school’s handling of this dilemma.
“They called me back at the office and gave me a paper to sign because they are saying that we should reach an agreement where we would pay one-sixth of our salary to repay the money. I am not going to sign any more papers until I can get structural ground. I have been a chef since I was 19 and I am now 39 years old. I am an industrial person; I can do mechanical, electrical, and carpentry work, yet still [they] cannot send me to work in one of those departments but they can send me to clean toilets,” he argued.
When the Sunday Observer contacted Dr Michelle Pinnock, MOEY director for Region Four, she corroborated the workers’ story that they were reassigned to other areas of the school due to the canteen operations being outsourced.
“The board has taken the decision, based on their evaluation, to outsource their canteen to a concessionaire. Seeing that these persons are permanently employed, they would have to be reassigned. Before now, they were reassigned without anything formal and what would happen is that they would just come to work, sign in, and do nothing,” said Dr Pinnock.
The regional director went on to note that the workers were recently engaged in a meeting during which they received their new job descriptions. She further said that she thought the workers were satisfied with this new development.
“We called them in, we explained the situation, and we spoke about the new job descriptions. We gave them the job descriptions and they signed last week — and as far as I am concerned they are at the school working,” Dr Pinnock said.
While she did not explain why the school attempted to make the workers’ positions redundant without the advice of the MOEY, Dr Pinnock told the Sunday Observer that there were “talks about redundancy”.
“They were not dismissed, [but] there was talk about redundancy and they got money. However, we were advised that they could not be made redundant,” she said.
Dr Pinnock continued, “Monies were lodged to their accounts and one of them paid back the money in full. The other two said that they are not able to pay back the money in full and so, based on the FAA Act, the school has an arrangement for the monies to be taken out of their salaries on a monthly basis.”
An attempt by the Sunday Observer to get a comment from the school’s principal was unsuccessful as he stated that it would go against the directive of the school’s board to do so.