In the decade since it opened, the 1.5-mile-long urban oasis that is the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway has been tended, tidied, and trimmed by crews from a Dorchester nonprofit, including 30 workers with disabilities.
But as the park celebrates its 10th anniversary this week, the conservancy that manages the Greenway has cut ties with the organization, which is the region’s largest employer of people with disabilities, in favor of a for-profit firm from Kentucky.
As a result, disabled and other employees from WORK Inc. have lost a job they loved, and angry company officials are wondering why they lost a contract that had given confidence and skills to people with a wide range of physical, psychological, and developmental challenges.
“I’m disgusted. It was an absolute shock,” said James Cassetta, president of WORK Inc., which has been helping the disabled since 1965. “I’ve never been as upset about anything in my career.”
Cassetta called the move a slap in the face to the disabled, whose cause has long been associated with the Kennedys and the late family matriarch for whom the Greenway is named.
Jesse Brackenbury, executive director of the Greenway Conservancy, heatedly denied that the contract decision discriminated against those with disabilities. The conservancy is the nonprofit steward of the 17-acre, state-owned park that stretches like a ribbon from Chinatown to the North End.
Brackenbury said the new contract, which took effect Tuesday, was awarded to Block by Block after scrupulous, public consideration of price, value, service, and references. The Louisville company, which already cleans Downtown Crossing and its surroundings, beat WORK Inc. in every important category, according to Brackenbury, who said he was authorized by the Greenway Conservancy to choose between the two finalists.
“This isn’t a matter of we fired WORK Inc. This is a matter of we made the best management decision to choose a competitive price for crucial services as fiduciaries of the park,” Brackenbury said.
Brackenbury bristled at Cassetta’s allegation that the Greenway Conservancy discriminated against disabled workers.
“I’m not sure I should dignify that with a response,” Brackenbury said. “It is an insult to a process that is transparent and clear.”
However, Cassetta and other WORK Inc. officials said they were startled to lose work that they had performed over two contracts for a decade. Cassetta said he submitted a break-even bid of $754,000 a year — nearly $50,000 higher than Block by Block’s offer over 12 months, according to Brackenbury — and that he never received a specific reason for its rejection.
“That’s the mystery question. We’re really struggling with that,” Cassetta said, who added that the company would try to reassign the workers.
Brackenbury said he had adequately informed WORK Inc. about the decision. In an interview, he did not cite any public complaints about the company, which also provides 130 disabled workers to maintain the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and other federal government sites in Boston, Andover, New Bedford, and Springfield.
“We hold the Greenway to an extremely high standard and so does the public,” Brackenbury said. “We don’t wait for there to be complaints, and we do the right thing before people make a complaint.”
WORK Inc. had maintained the Greenway — emptying trash, picking up litter, erasing graffiti, shoveling snow, and power-washing under food trucks — every day of the year from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., whatever the weather.
The company had been using the equivalent of 9.5 full-time workers, including managers, on the Greenway this year, WORK Inc. officials said. Out of that total, four full-time jobs were held by people with disabilities, according to the company.
“They were shocked. They took it personally,” said Julia Fleming, who managed the company’s Greenway work for five years. “My first thought was for my guys. We were under the assumption that we were doing a great job.”
Christopher Thresher, a 31-year-old man from Stoughton who is deaf, said he owes the full-time job he now has with Amazon to the training he received on the Greenway.
“It was my first job experience. I loved it,” said Thresher, who left the Greenway about a year ago. “I learned how to work with others. It taught me how to communicate with others.”
The job came with more than a paycheck, which was about $17 an hour for this year’s employees. Thresher was able to move from a group home, where he received help for disabilities, to an apartment where he now lives by himself.
“My goal was to become the independent person I am today,” Thresher said through a sign-language interpreter. “It’s disappointing that others can’t have that experience. They should give other people the opportunity I had.”
Brackenbury said it is important to remember the link between the disabled and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, who championed their cause. But he stressed that the contract decision was based on procuring the best services at the best price. “I applaud their work to help people with disabilities,” Brackenbury said. “At the same time, we are spending taxpayer dollars and need to spend them wisely.”
The Greenway receives about 80 percent of its funding from private sources and 20 percent from public funds, Brackenbury said.
Block by Block, which has contracts at more than 100 sites across the country, is able to gather data quickly on problem areas, produce reports, and direct resources there, Brackenbury said. He described that ability as “incredibly appealing.”
Cassetta, however, said that the chance to change and improve the lives of the disabled brings an intangible reward. WORK Inc. helps 1,200 people a year with physical, psychological, and developmental disabilities, among others, officials said.
“This isn’t about WORK Inc. and the Greenway, per se. It’s about individuals with disabilities being shortchanged,” Cassetta said. “It’s about the message being sent to people with disabilities.”