Aramark employees: nothing guaranteed

The company replacing Aramark as Portland State’s new food service provider said last week that they cannot guarantee the preservation of jobs or wages, confirming the fears of many union workers.

Sodexho, the Maryland-based company that will replace Aramark, PSU’s current food service contractor, will take over food service during summer term. The contract finalizing the change should be signed early next week.

Sodexho verbally pledged while bidding for the contract last fall to maintain the union and honor the contracts of over 65 current Aramark employees.

Employees were told in a forum at the beginning of February that their jobs were safe. As the date of the final contract signing draws nearer, however, employees say Sodexho has changed its tune.

“None of the promises are being met. We were told that we all have to reapply for our jobs, and our jobs are not guaranteed,” said Carlos Montano, president of PSU’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1336.

All employees have until May 1 to submit applications and will have to go through an interview process to retain their positions. Montano said that employees are also worried that they receive a cut in wages and benefits.

“When it came to what we’re getting paid, what out benefits were like, or any kind of financial issue, [Sodexho’s labor relations personnel] didn’t have an answer,” Montano said.

Employees were also told their dress code would change. Earrings bigger than a dime, dyed hair, and visible tattoos will no longer be allowed, much to the concern of employees who say that the Portland State’s liberal campus allows for these kinds of expressions. Many employees currently have multicolored hair and a variety of body piercings and tattoos.

“It sounds like Sodexho’s corporate values are quite different that Portland State’s community values,” said Debra Winger, an organizer for AFSCME Council 75.

“My mother doesn’t even tell me to change my hair,” Montano said.

Sodexho spokeswoman Bonnie Gordon said that the interviews are merely to ensure that the employees are qualified for the positions, and that the regulations regarding tattoos and piercing are to guarantee the quality and safety of the food. Gordon also said that “[Dress codes] are always indicative of what our client says is important to them.”

As far as how the employee will be paid, Gordon said, “We look at pay regionally. The pay would be what is competitive to the region.”

In response to workers’ concerns that they may lose seniority and sustain a cut in wages, she said, “We typically recognize what was put into the previous service.”

A longstanding concern for the food service employees is that their union will no longer exist after the contract changes from Aramark to Sodexho. “If they don’t hire 51 percent of the union, it’s not recognized,” Council 75 representative Debra Kidney said.

“We’ve been pretty clear that we want the union maintained,” said John Eckman, associate director of auxiliary services.

According to Gordon, Sodexho has nearly 300 union agreements across the United States. “We recognize that people have the right to unionize,” she said.

Eckman said that wage and benefit negotiations are ultimately between Sodexho and the union, and that there is not much Portland State can do. He said there is no stipulation in PSU’s contract with Sodexho that says the new company must keep the union.

Bargaining with Sodexho begins in May. Kidney was told by Sodexho that the situation is not as dire as it sounds – employees will likely not be rehired for reasons such as a felony conviction or ineligibility to work in the United States.

“I still have a lot of skepticism,” Kidney said. “We have to stay really aware of what a difficult challenge for employees this is going to be. They are going to have to hang around for along time with a lot of uncertainty.”

“For those of us who are over 50, the need to know [if we have jobs] is really important,” employee Virginia Kinney said.

Lynnea Searls, who works with Kinney at Subway, is trying to look on the bright side. “I think Sodexho might be a good company to work for. I’m having the utmost positive attitude.”

Montano is not so optimistic. “I think that with the problems we’ve had so far, PSU has made a big mistake in bringing [Sodexho] here.”

A series of union meetings were held this week to discuss the union’s next course of action. Montano has approached student groups for help and plans to begin doing community outreach.

“Sodexho has to live here,” Eckman said. “They’ll be held accountable.”