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Lambert Airport

A view of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Thursday, August 4, 2016. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

St. Louis Lambert International Airport officials awarded a $13.5-million janitorial contract Wednesday to a company whose St. Louis-based subsidiary has drawn criticism from two federal agencies.

The city Airport Commission voted 11-2 to recommend that the three-year deal go to Atalian Global Services Inc., a French-owned firm that last year acquired Centaur Building Services of St. Louis.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents current janitorial workers at Lambert, had urged the panel to reject Atalian because of the Centaur criticism.

The union cited a National Labor Relations Board complaint alleging that Centaur illegally dismissed a janitor at Express Scripts because of his union organizing efforts.

In a settlement Feb. 28, Centaur denied the accusations but agreed to pay $7,000 to the janitor and to post a workplace notice outlining union organizing rights.

The union also cited the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2015 determination that there was “reasonable cause to believe” that Centaur dismissed a black supervisor because of her race.

Centaur denied those accusations as well. The woman, who worked for Centaur at a medical building in O’Fallon, Mo., then sued the company. A federal judge sent the case to mediation and the case was settled, a Lambert official said.

“The working people and passengers … as well as city taxpayers deserve better than an irresponsible contractor like Atalian and by extension, Centaur,” Nancy Cross, vice president of SEIU Local 1, said in a March 23 letter to Lambert Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge.

Airport officials said Wednesday that they were confident that Atalian/Centaur would adhere to anti-discrimination and labor laws.

Ron Stella, Lambert’s deputy director, said the issues cited by the union were “two blemishes on (Centaur’s) otherwise exemplary career for 30 years” in the St. Louis area. He also said the airport could terminate the contract if problems ever arose. “There’s no wiggle room,” Stella said.

Christophe Jeusse, CEO of Atalian’s North American operations, sought to reassure the commission that the company would treat Lambert workers fairly. He added that “I’m coming from a country where unions are extremely strong,” referring to France.

One commission member, Marilyn Teitelbaum, said she was concerned partly because the NLRB had criticized Centaur’s labor practices.

In response, Centaur’s president, Janine Joubert-Dulay, said Centaur used to routinely tell new employees not to discuss their salaries because pay rates vary from building to building depending on contracts Centaur had with different companies.

She said that when the NLRB told Centaur that was “deemed incorrect” under labor law, it immediately stopped doing that.

Teitelbaum, a lawyer whose firm has represented the SEIU on unrelated matters, abstained from voting Wednesday to avoid “any appearance of impropriety.”

Airport documents say Atalian’s bid was the lowest of five bids considered by Lambert managers and about $500,000 below the next lowest offer. Six other bids were rejected as not following advance specifications.

The Atalian contract, set to begin July 1, still needs approval by the city’s chief fiscal body — the Board of Estimate and Apportionment.

After the vote, the SEIU issued a statement saying it would now urge the estimate board to reject the contract.

One of the losing bidders was the company that holds the current contract, Regency Enterprises Services LLC, of south St. Louis County. However, Regency would still get some of the work because it also was listed as a minority subcontractor as part of Atalian’s bid.

The Lambert cleaning contract has been a source of controversy for the past year.

Last June, a Chicago firm awarded the contract, United Maintenance, abruptly gave it up after Lambert began inquiring about a news report that the firm was accused by a Chicago agency of reserving jobs based on political considerations.

Lambert earlier had initially blocked United’s bid because of other news reports that its president had ties to organized crime figures. After United appealed, the airport reversed its decision after concluding that United provided “satisfactory and credible support” that the reports were unfounded.

A second round of bids was thrown out later in the year because of what Lambert called “considerable confusion” over what was required of companies to try to get participation by minority- and women-owned firms.]

Editor's note: The name of Airport Commission member Marilyn Teitelbaum was misspelled in an earlier version of this report.

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Mark Schlinkmann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.