PITTSFIELD — When the coronavirus pandemic abruptly closed schools in March, Stefanie Koenig was among about 20 Pittsfield school cafeteria workers who stepped up to ensure that the district could continue to provide grab-and-go meals for students.

This summer, she got a pink slip.

Koenig, co-chairwoman of the Pittsfield Federation of School Employees cafeteria unit, joined dozens of other employees and cafeteria workers Tuesday in Park Square to rally against the layoffs, which union officials said affect about 50 of the district's approximately 70 cafeteria workers beginning Thursday.

"We've been disrespected since March," Koenig said above the sound of motorists honking as they drove by. "We had to fight for them to provide us [personal protective equipment]. We were scared; we didn't know what we were dealing with at all. We put our families at risk; I put my daughter's health at risk."

She also said the workers fear losing their health insurance through the district if they don't return to work at the end of next month.

The district announced the layoffs last week, saying they were necessary for budgetary reasons while students are not in school. Classes began remotely for the entire district Sept. 15; officials announced Monday that they hoped to begin to gradually shift students to in-person school next week and complete the transition by Oct. 26 — if the coronavirus numbers remain stable.

"All the other units are being paid," Koenig said. "We're the only ones that are being laid off."

But, Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said that's because federal meal reimbursements make up the budget to pay cafeteria employees, and with fewer meals being distributed while children participate in district learning, there isn't money coming in to pay the full contingent of cafeteria staff.

"We certainly understand the frustration," he said. "We think that it is slightly misplaced; the cafeteria is one department whose entire budget is funded by the customers that they serve."

McCandless said Monday that the district retained the employees for as long as possible, but "we can't pay people for whom we don't have the budget to pay them."

For now, the district only needs about 20 cafeteria workers to handle grab-and-go meals during the remote learning period.

"Once we get into hybrid, we will need our full team [of cafeteria staff] back," he said.

In a news release, Debra Rooney, chairwoman of the cafeteria unit, said administrators justified the layoffs by saying that the public would not stand for the district to continue paying employees for whom there is no work. She slammed that idea in light of the pay raises that the School Committee gave several top administrators last year. Under new six-year contracts approved in December, the top four district administrators will receive 2 percent annual increases through 2025.

"These are the same administrators who only last year convinced the School Committee and the City of Pittsfield to give them pay increases in excess of $10K," Rooney wrote. "Shame on this administration."

The layoffs affect a staff that largely is made up of women with families who earn wages that require that they take a second or even third job to support their families, Rooney said in her statement, noting that the employees "deserve the praise of a grateful city for all that they have done to feed Pittsfield's most vulnerable children."

She said the city and its school district have enough money between their allotment of Chapter 70 education funding from the state and "$1.9 million in COVID-19 assistance from the Federal Government" to keep them employed until the transition to hybrid learning occurs.

"The decision to cut these positions is a political decision — it isn't based on a lack of money — it's happening because the school department officials simply do not have the political will to ask the City for funding to maintain these positions until all of our students return to school!" she wrote.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.