Biting back at the hand that feeds you
By Nick Muscavage
Feb 10, 2015
After Chartwells’ 10-year contract with the University at Albany was up in 2013, the opening for another food company came into the picture. The university went with Sodexo Quality of Life food services, and the company is currently responsible for a majority of the food services on campus.
The expired Chartwells contract brought with it lay offs of over 400 jobs, according to Pam Allen’s article in the Business Review. Some of the employees were asked back by Sodexo to continue to work with the UAlbany Dining Services (UADS), but some current UADS employees are not satisfied with their new parent company.
This is not UAlbany’s first time using Sodexo, as the university had a contract with the company in the past. UAlbany Dining Services was self-operated up until 1999, which was when the university decided to draw up a contract with Sodexo. At that point, Sodexo (then named Sodexho) was merged with Mariott Management Services.
According to UAlbany’s Executive Auxiliary Services Director Stephen Pearse, when Sodexo and Mariott merged, the company inherited a class-action lawsuit. It had been filed against Mariott on discrimination charges towards minority managers in their hotel contract. This was a year into Sodexo-Marriott’s new contract with UAlbany.
That newly merged organization “embarked on a journey of legality to come to some resolution,” said Pearse. They established procedures to prevent discrimination cases from occurring again. Shortly after this lawsuit was sorted out, there was an alleged outbreak of the bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) in the Indian Quad’s dining hall. E. coli can cause intestinal issues and is typicall transmitted through contaminated water or food — particularly raw vegetables, or undercooked beef.
According to the April 7, 2000 issue of the Albany Student Press, Tae Mae Monahan wrote, “Five students have confirmed cases of E. coli and several more are being tested after eating in the Indian Quad cafeteria last week.”
During this time, Pearse was working under Sodexo-Marriott, and according to him, he was on the task force sent by the company to inspect the quad’s dining hall.
“About a year into the contract, there was an alleged E. coli outbreak. Nothing was ever proven, I was actually on the task force that came here at that time to review the facilities,” he said.
He went on to say that the previous discrimination lawsuit combined with the E. coli outbreak caused the students, and the people in the surrounding communities, to protest against Sodexo-Marriot.
In 2000, a protest took place that led to the office of then-president of UAlbany, Karen R. Hitchcock. The protestors were attempting to rid the campus of the controversial Sodexo-Marriot.
In an Albany Student Press article dated March 31, 2000, staff writer Shane Roer reported that “more than 30 protesters from the Student Labor Initiative (SLI) stormed the Administration Building Thursday at 11:30 a.m. Members demanded a meeting with president Karen R. Hitchcock.”
The article went on to explain the demands the protesters had, stating that “the goal of the letters was to bring attention to the injustices being carried out by Sodexho-Marriott, the troubled food service provider of UAlbany.”
The protest ended at 5:30 p.m. with shouts from University Police Chief James Frank Wiley threatening to charge the remaining protesters with trespassing.
According to another Albany Student Press article from the same year, the protest led to the eventual termination of the contract with Sodexo. In the same issue of the newspaper, an article introduced the new food service provider as Chartwells.
Sodexo Back at UAlbany:
After Chartwells’ contract expired two years ago, the opening for another contract came into the picture. The options were to renew with Chartwells, go with a food service company based out of North Carolina named Aramark, or go with Sodexo. Since the previous contract, Sodexo had split with its Mariott half, and simplified its name to Sodexo. Scott Birge, Director of Campus Center Management, was on the ad hoc committee that evaluated these competing companies.
“UAS was in charge of the bidding situation. We went as a team and made spots at installations in the greater Northeast that had Aramark, Chartwells and Sodexo contracted, and then we gave our recommendations and Sodexo was chosen,” said Birge.
He explained that the satisfaction, safety, finance, and the ability of the company handling the size and diversity of UAlbany were all considerations while voting.
Birge went on to say that he believes they made the right decision by choosing Sodexo.
“I’m convinced that they have the kind of leadership that will keep them nimble and really facilitate our community’s needs as best as they can,” he said.
Pearse stated that since 2011, Sodexo has been in the top three rankings of DiversityInc in the Fortune 500. He also explained that UAS and UAlbany wanted Sodexo to be contracted because they believe Sodexo could handle the demand that a high-populated school brings with it. He also explained that he believes that the worker relations and sanitation problems would be solved.
E. coli and Sanitation
In 2000, when E. coli was believed to have been present in the Indian Quad dining hall, there was an E. coli outbreak at Bethesda Elementary School in Wisconsin, leaving a total of 19 children sick and four hospitalized, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Sodexo-Marriot was their food service provider.
Also, in 2003 when an up-scale retirement home named Sequoias in San Mateo, California run by Sodexo-Marriot had an outbreak, it left nearly a dozen of residents sick and led to one resident’s death.
In 2012, during one of its largest food poisoning outbreaks so far, Sodexo is being accused of sickening 11,000 children across 500 schools in Germany, hospitalizing 32 of the children.
Even after all of the E. coli outbreaks, some UADS employees claim that Sodexo’s sanitation practices have not improved. One anonymous employee, whose name will be changed to Rose Rizzo because she fears for her own future employment, stated that she was punished for attempting to fix a potentially health threatening situation. This is her first year working for Sodexo.
When noticing a manager placing old meat on top of new meat at SubConnection, Rizzo tried to tell him that he should not do that due to health regulations. She then received one point counting against her in the new point system that was implemented for the first time last year at UADS.
“The system is broken,” she said about Sodexo’s management.
She further explained the point system they operate on.
If you do anything wrong during the day, such as manning the wrong station, you’d receive half of a point towards your name. If an employee is sick and can’t come in or needs to leave work, he can do so, but he will receive three points. If an employee accumulates nine points, he is put on suspension, but according to Rizzo, the employee will probably not be asked back. Suspension results in termination of employment.
Rizzo also expressed concerns about the way food is stored in the Campus Center. After noticing the ice melting under the metal containers of meat at SubConnection, she said that the workers, instead of replacing them, are so busy that they sometimes don’t switch them. She has also seen food that she explained as “inedible” being served, such as soggy tomatoes, old lettuce, and hard, stale bread.
“I have worked at companies before who cut corners, [and] it is understandable because of the economy. This is not cutting corners. They are cutting blocks. Once you start cutting blocks it becomes detrimental to the workers and the customers,” she said.
She has tried to fix this problem as well, but it only resulted in her accumulation of nine points and then her suspension. However, she was asked back and now, she explains, she just keeps her mouth shut.
Sodexo brings in workers under the company Labor Ready. These employees have no union, as opposed to UADS employees, who do have a union. At any time there are as many as nine Labor Ready employees working in place of the original employees at the UAlbany Campus Center
One incident observed by Rizzo happened in early April, 2014. When a young worker named Avalon came in for her shift at SubConnection, she was greeted by a Labor Ready worker doing her job. The manager had made a mistake when organizing the shift schedule, something that apparently happens quite often, according to Rizzo, and told Avalon to go home. She followed orders and learned later the next day that she received half of a point for returning home that day. Avalon could not be reached for further comment.
Rizzo explained that younger employees do not know their union rights as extensively as a veteran worker, who may have known that she was able to stay and work her shift as she was supposed to, and send the Labor Ready employee home. She also explained that managers will take advantage of the younger worker’s inexperience and get them suspended or fired to bring in Labor Ready workers who are cheaper to keep around.
Tim MacTurk, General Manager of Auxiliary Services, explained that Labor Ready workers are only called in when employees call out of work on short notice, and no other employees want to cover the shift.
“When we ask employees to either move from a quad or stay late, we are told that they can’t, which is fine, that’s their call. We have opportunity for more hours or overtime, if they don’t want it we can’t force anybody to work it,” he said.
Food and shift management aside, the lines are also incredibly long at the Campus Center and other eateries around campus. Another anonymous source that has been working for UADS for over 10 years now, said that she has never seen anything so disorganized in all her years working here. Her name will be changed to Marie Marta.
“Lines are so long and seem to be never ending. At times, I don’t even get my lunch break until my shift is over at 4:30 [p.m.], which is against the law,” Marta said.
Marta does not speak up or state her name for the same reason the other employees do not: fear. She went on to say that under Chartwells, lines were never like this, and if they were, they handled it much better, giving the workers the deserved breaks that are crucial in making a good working environment.
“If you don’t have happy workers, you don’t have happy customers,” she said.
Marta also spoke on an incident that occurred earlier this year in which a group of three men came into the Campus Center and began harassing an employee working behind the counter of Stalks and Stems. The group left after the first incident only to return later the next day.
Rizzo went into more detail, explaining that she vehemently tried to get a manager to come down or for somebody to get better security in the Campus Center. She said that she had heard the group of boys yelling, saying that they would be back. Rizzo attempted to warn management, but nothing was changed. The group came back the next day and began throwing chairs.
While this was happening, another employee behind the counter named Gigi attempted to escape. While running outside the double glass door of the Campus Center by the 518-Market, Gigi hit her leg in the midst of the mayhem on the metal post that divides the two doors. She broke her leg in two separate places. Gigi could not be reached for further comment.
MacTurk said, “What had happened was, based on the UPD investigation, was that it was actually our staff member’s fault . . . We didn’t think that at the time, but after all the investigation and talking to all the witnesses, it became clear that it had something to do with a female interest at a party.”
He said that on incidents like this, there really aren’t any precautions. He explained that they always refer to UPD when a situation such as this occurs and that he and his staff just want to ensure his workers and customers are equally safe.
What’s Happening Now:
A similar protest to the one that stormed Hitchcock’s office in 2000 occurred at UAlbany two years ago. A protest dubbed May Day Rally was formed by students expressing their concerns on several issues, “including the installation of Sodexo as the campus wide food service provider,” according to an article by Dave Lucas on WAMC.org.
Sodexo has come a long way since its first days in 1966 as start-up company. Since then, Sodexo has been involved with an array of scandals and complaints, illnesses and outbreaks and employee outcries of abuse. One scandal involves the circulation of horsemeat in Europe, particularly in Britain, according to an article on theguardian.com, stating that Sodexo provided halal beef containing more than one percent of horsemeat.
A pattern emerges through all of this data, and that is the fact that if a university sees an unjust company or incident and wants a hand in ridding their campus of it, the power falls into the hand of the students, who, according to employee after employee here at UAlbany, are the only hope in abolishing something of this magnitude.