Update: At 11:15 a.m. on Friday, October 25, University of Vermont president Tom Sullivan sent an email to the school's faculty and staff with the news that "Sodexo employees will not experience changes in the current definition of employment status and associated benefits until further notice in order for the University to complete its analysis based on a full review of all relevant data and facts."
As reasons for the announcement, the president cited "a very tight timeframe" for affected employees to find health care; the "challenges" and "uncertainties" surrounding current health-care options; "The University’s obligation to complete its review of the proposed changes under the contract with Sodexo"; and the upcoming negotiations over a new contract with Sodexo ahead of the current one's expiration in June 2015.
When Sodexo revealed last month that it was changing the definition of a full-time employee to someone who works an average of 30 hours per week — according to the rules of the Affordable Care Act — many cried foul at colleges around the state who subcontract their dining services to the multinational company.
Only full-timers are eligible for company benefits, so when the new policy takes effect on January 1, many seasonal employees stand to be stripped of their health and dental insurance, sick and vacation days, and retirement packages. On the campuses of the University of Vermont and the Vermont state colleges, two coalitions of staff, faculty, students and labor groups have sprung up demanding that the schools intervene.
When the UVM trustees convene this weekend, one of those groups will use a public comment period on Saturday morning to present a petition — directed at UVM president Tom Sullivan and vice president for finance Richard Cate, who negotiate the school’s dining services contract — with more than 1000 signatures.
Denise Youngblood, a history professor and president of United Academics, the school’s faculty union, will also address the trustees. In her talk, Youngblood says, she’ll ask the board to urge that Sullivan and Cate take advantage of a clause in the current contract that requires the school’s approval for any change Sodexo makes in its employees’ working conditions. The existing contract will expire after 2015.
“We believe that UVM should live up to its proclaimed social justice values,” says Youngblood. “Every employee who works on this campus should have a fair benefits package. No UVM employees are being treated the way Sodexo employees are being treated.”
For now, the jury is out on any action the UVM administration will take in response to the petition, whose cosponsors include UVM Students Stand Up, the Vermont Fair Food Campaign and United Professions/AFT.
In an October 10 letter to faculty and staff, Cate wrote, “The University is reviewing its obligations, rights, and discretion under the contract with Sodexo.” Due to the complexity of any changes related to the new health care law, the school was seeking legal counsel to determine the impacts of the new policy on Sodexo employees, Cate said. “As soon as the reports are completed, we will be in a position to reach a conclusion regarding the issues raised.”
UVM has not released any of those reports so far, says Jeff Wakefield, a communications officer for the school.
The Vermont Fair Food Campaign and AFT Vermont have also been collecting signatures — at this point more than 300 — for a petition it will present to the VSC trustees, who recently signed a contract with Sodexo. That petition asks Sodexo to reverse its benefits cuts, inform employees of their rights to organize and extend paid sick days to all Sodexo employees.
The Vermont chapter of United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, a trade union, is also working with Sodexo employees at each school who have expressed an interest in unionizing, says Kelly Mangan, an organizer with the Fair Food Campaign who has been working with Kim Lawson at UE.
Pointing to a few other instances of companies using rules of the new health care law to strip their employees of benefits, Mangan says, their hope is that the workers might find bargaining power against such future measures. Beyond the basic right of each employee to a livable wage and benefits, she also points out the public health issue of stripping sick days: “I know that if I was a student at UVM, I would not want employees having to make a decision between making a day of pay or coming to school ill.”
Dan Smith, VSC's director of communications and public policy, says the school system’s administrators are still studying how the new policy will affect its dining staff.
This month, managers from Sodexo’s Maryland offices have been in Vermont to meet with employees about the status of their benefits. So far the company won't reveal how many individuals will lose them, says spokesman Gregory Yost in an email to Seven Days.
Although Yost doesn’t respond to the question of whether Sodexo would make any exceptions for the way it allots benefits in future contracts with UVM, he does maintain the right of Sodexo employees “to unionize or not to unionize, as they choose” and “to hear all sides of the issue and then make an informed decision free of pressure or coercion from anyone.”
The news about Sodexo’s policy change first emerged in September, after Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), also a UVM professor, received complaints from the school’s dining staff and wrote a letter to Vermont Commissioner of Labor Annie Noonan requesting an investigation. Noonan found Sodexo’s employee classification to be lawful, but now Baruth, vice-chair of the senate’s economic development committee, intends to raise the issue when lawmakers reconvene in January.
“One of the things we want to look at it is, if Sodexo is making a very worker-unfriendly environment, we want to look at other companies to see if they’re doing anything similar,” Baruth says. “As we bring the Affordable Care Act online, I do think we need to keep an eye on how workers are affected by this.”