When Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) walks around the University of Vermont, where he is also an English professor, it’s not unusual for people to approach him with their complaints. He’s the majority leader in the Vermont State Senate, after all.
But the number of complaints spiked to around “10 times the normal rate” last week, the senator says, and the constituents approaching him weren’t students; they were employees of Sodexo Food Service, the French multinational company to which UVM and other Vermont colleges contract their dining services.
The workers, Baruth says, were complaining that Sodexo had informed them it would be cutting back many of their hours at the end of the calendar year, resulting in the loss of their health, dental and other benefits. They also alleged that the company had warned it would terminate any employees who went public with their complaints.
“They were told, pretty straight up, that they were going to lose health benefits and retirement,” Baruth says, suggesting that the Sodexo workers approached him in person out of fear the company might be monitoring their emails.
In response, Baruth wrote a letter to Vermont Commissioner of Labor Annie Noonan requesting an investigation into the complaints.
“If true, these allegations would represent a very serious infringement on the rights of Sodexo workers not just on the UVM campus — where the company holds an exclusive contract for food services — but on various campuses of the state colleges as well,” Baruth said in the letter.
In an email to Seven Days, Sodexo spokesperson Greg Yost wrote that the company won’t be reducing any of its employees' hours and that full-time employees will continue to receive health benefits. However, Yost says the number of workers who qualify as “full-time” could change.
“To match the Affordable Care Act definition of a full-time employee, Sodexo is changing how we define hourly non-exempt employees as full-time as someone who works an average of 30 hours or more per week over a 52-week period,” the statement said. The statement did not say how the company currently defines full-time status.
A woman who asked to be identified only as an employee of Sodexo on the UVM campus confirmed that is how the company presented its case during a meeting in Cook Commons on August 20 that was attended by all of the college’s dining services workers.
She said the new criteria could leave her and many of her 350-some coworkers without benefits. Because of their limited work hours during summer break, she said she worries that as many as 75 percent of them may not meet that 30-hour a week benchmark and would no longer qualify for health and dental coverage, sick and vacation days and a retirement package at the end of the year. Those people would have to turn to the state or private insurers.
“Some people have been here 20, 25, 30 years, and as of January 1 will be considered part-time employees,” says the employee. “A lot of people on the benefits have family members that are on those benefits.”
She says they were informed that representatives from the company’s corporate office in Maryland would be meeting with them in the next few weeks to determine their eligibility under the new policy.
“People are mad, but I think they’re more scared than anything else. It’s just the fear of the unknown,” says the woman. She describes her own hours as varying between 40 and 50 per week during the school year. She doesn't work at all during the summer, though, so she's unsure if she’ll end up as classified as a full-time employee.
In his statement, the Sodexo spokesman said the company won’t know how many employees will be affected until mid-October. But given that Sodexo handles dining services for UVM, St. Michael’s College, Champlain College and every school in the Vermont State College system, the number could be substantial.
Responding to the allegation that the company has prevented workers from voicing their complaints, Yost added that “Sodexo does not retaliate against employees.”
If the allegations turn out to be true, Baruth is urging UVM to reconsider its exclusive dealings with Sodexo. In his letter to Noonan, he asks the Commissioner of Labor to launch an investigation so that the Senate Economic Development Committee can act on its findings when the legislature reconvenes in January.
Although Noonan won’t speak to the specific allegations, she says one of the labor department’s attorneys is reviewing Baruth’s letter.
“[Baruth] needs some answers as to what’s permissible and not permissible,” she says, explaining that the attorney will be scanning the senator’s points to determine if any state laws are being violated.
Noonan says she hopes to have a response as soon as Monday.