/When food service means food stamps The overlooked workers of Bama Dining

When food service means food stamps The overlooked workers of Bama Dining

Editor’s Note: Nonprofit Mississippi News Editor’s Note: The Southern Foodways Alliance collaborated with the Clarion Ledger and AL.com to highlight the economics of campus dining at Auburn University and Mississippi State University. Tacarra Davis worked six years in the service lines of one of the largest dining halls at the University of Alabama. Davis stated, “I did pretty much everything.” Davis said, “Training. Prepping. Cooking. Serving.” Davis began part-time at Bama Dining in 2013. She chopped and cooked, and served students and staff from Alabama’s largest university. Davis was always on time, never missed a shift, and made herself a fixture in the kitchen, even though the rest of her staff were prone to being late. She was finally able to work full-time after four years. She was laid off every summer and lived on food stamps. Davis was a campus employee who did not work for the school, but for Aramark, a food service contractor. Aramark, which employs 215,000 people, provides dining services on over 400 campuses. It is one of the most important food service contractors in the globe. This multi-billion-dollar dining company is one of many that operates industrial kitchens in the United States. It employs low-wage workers and is a major player in the nation’s food service industry. These workers are not eligible for one of the greatest benefits colleges offer, which is free University of Alabama classes. Davis was not able to take advantage of the generous tuition discounts for regular employees. This allows them and their families to obtain degrees and move up the economic ladder. This was only one of the many stark differences between university employees and food service workers. Davis stated that she was working on campus for the university, but there was a huge difference. It is not uncommon for university food workers to be part of a lower caste on campus. They prepare and serve food to thousands of people who live in areas with limited dining options. Davis and her colleagues worked through tornado warnings and holidays that shut down other university functions. Mealtimes were not cancelled, unlike classes. Kristina Patridge is the director of university dining services. She stated that even though schools and colleges can close due to severe weather, they still have this service available for students. Patridge stated that “Bama Dining” is an Aramark subsidiary, which has been on campus since 1996. Davis was certain she would work for the University of Alabama, when she applied to the Bama Dining position. Davis had previously worked in food service, but she expected more from a job on campus. Davis stated, “Since it’s the University of Alabama you would expect it to pay enough to take care of all those students on campus.” Aramark was her employer only after she arrived at orientation. Davis was different from other university employees who cared for the grounds, maintained the floors and protected the buildings. Outsourcing doesn’t just affect food service. Aramark contractors manage some facilities at Alabama A&M University. University of Alabama – Huntsville uses outside companies for student transport. Troy University recently outbid some of its public relations work. Nearly all colleges and universities employ adjunct faculty who are paid per class, in addition to full-time faculty. Universities are also researching how contract labor increases the gap between low-wage workers and middle-class workers. This approach was pioneered in corporations and has since spread to education as well as the public sector. Rosemary Batt, a Cornell University professor, has examined the effects of this model on workers in fast-food franchises and call centres. Batt stated that contractors are a significant factor in the difference in wages and working conditions between workers at the contracted entity and those who work directly for the company. “That worker will receive substantially lower wages and benefits that a worker who’s employed directly by the company.” Harris Raynor is the southern regional director of the Service Employees International Union. He said contractors on campus are a lower class employee. They often perform similar work, but with fewer benefits, than regular staff. Aramark’s salaries are comparable to those of most food service companies, but their perks pale in comparison with universities. He said that educational benefits are an important benefit, especially considering the rising cost of college. Employees are increasingly relying on educational benefits, which tend to be very generous at universities. According to the College Board, the average tuition cost at public universities has risen 213 percent over 1988. This means that college is out of reach for many people struggling to make ends work. Batt stated that universities are often attractive as they offer better benefits, even though their hourly wages may not be very high. You may find a foodservice worker whose hourly wage is comparable to an employee of the university. You will be amazed at the differences in their benefits packages. University of Alabama employees and their families receive steep tuition discounts, including up to four classes free of charge each year and 50% off any additional coursework. Part-time employees receive smaller discounts. The benefit is only available to one family member at a time. It applies not only to employees but also to their spouses or children. Auburn University has even more to offer: Auburn University provides up to 15 hours of school each semester tuition-free for qualified employees, and 50 percent off spouses and dependents. The University of Alabama in-state tuition costs $10,780. For freshman students, housing is an additional $9,000. Full-time employees save approximately 70% Terry Poole was a security guard at the University of Alabama. He patrolled parking lots and checked dorms for problems. The $26,000 per year salary was not what drew him to the job, but the tuition discounts that he is using to finish his degree in aerospace engineering. Poole stated, “I worked as a bouncer downtown for many years, and one of the bouncers at Alabama was also a security guard, so he was telling him about the benefits.” Poole joined the state in January 2016. He was also eligible for a tuition discount and received standard state benefits including a pension, paid sick leave, and health insurance. There were also some not-so-standard benefits. Poole stated that there are a few other perks. “A lot” of local businesses offer discounts to employees. Davis discovered that Aramark was not the most affordable company. She had to pay on-campus parking fees, as all employees. She couldn’t have the cost deducted automatically from her paycheck, so she had to go to the parking office. She was able to pay $400 for parking fees at one time. When Aramark gave her raises, they were less than she had expected. Davis became eligible for Aramark’s health insurance and a retirement plan through Aramark, but she couldn’t afford to pay premiums or contribute. Davis made a little over $10 an hour before she quit. That worked out to $13,000 per year. Davis struggled to keep her paychecks afloat despite the fact that she was able to get food and meal discounts. Low wages prevented her savings from growing. Davis stated that she spent six years at the company and didn’t achieve anything. Poole lived a dual life, working full-time and studying part-time. He didn’t want to miss his second chance at college. He was overwhelmed by the coursework and his first college attempt ended quickly. Poole quit college and spent many years installing concrete floors at retail stores. Poole made good money, but the industry changed and his company was forced to close. He lost his income and took the university job to secure better economic security. Poole stated, “I have never been on an aircraft in my entire life. People always ask me, “How are you going to build them?” “People build spaceships and I can assure you that they have never been on one. Aerospace engineering is the most lucrative job you can get after a bachelor’s degree. It’s why I did it.” Payscale.com, a website that tracks industry wages, estimates that aerospace engineers can expect to make between $70,000 and $90,000. It is not uncommon to earn six-figure salaries. Poole stated that he spent $2,500 on 13 hours of engineering classes this semester and estimates that his total bill will be between $15,000 and $18,000 by the time he finishes his degree in 2021. Poole stated that one semester his books were more expensive than my tuition. Poole said, “I always see everything in red and blue, and at the bottom of the day it’s saving $50,000 to $60,000 to obtain my degree.” Poole utilized his natural abilities with numbers to maximize every hour and paycheck. Poole began his night shift as a security guard at the University of Alabama. Poole worked six to six o’clock in the evening and returned to class at eight o’clock in the morning. There were two classes each day, plus labs and homework. This virtually eliminated any downtime. He said that he averaged between eight and 14 hours sleep per week. It was difficult. Poole switched from days to days last year. This has made it easier for him to sleep, but harder for his classes. Three hours of leave per week is granted to employees by the university. Poole squeezes classes in his lunch breaks and supplemental breaks, and takes an hour and fifteen minutes each week of annual leave for lectures. This plan has been disrupted by changes in his work schedule. The security guard lost his leave and had to miss several classes at one point. He earned two Assists, one B, and a D in a course that he had to take again over the summer. Summer is the quietest time at the university and offers the best education benefits. During the summer lull, employees can take two classes for free. Aramark, which loses a large portion of its workforce each summer, is not exempt from this generosity. Davis was eligible for unemployment benefits at $100 per week in some years. In others, Davis worked during camp season. Davis was usually unpaid for three consecutive months. Davis stated that she was still receiving food stamps at the time. Batt stated that seasonal workers lower costs for contractors. Batt stated that colleges used to directly employ service and food workers. “Universities have outsourced their dietary services over the last two decades in an effort to reduce costs. Contracts are intended to lower costs. Foodservice contractors always look for ways to reduce costs. They cut down the hours they are willing and able to provide services.” This often means that dining halls will be closed during holidays or have fewer hours. Batt stated that this also leads to insecure seasonal work for workers. Since 1996, Aramark has provided dining services to the University of Alabama. It took over from another contractor. The company offers dining services to several southern schools including Auburn University, University of South Alabama and Mississippi State. Both parties benefit from the business relationship. The contract requires that Aramark pay the university at most $9.5 million in commissions during the 2019-2020 school years. Aramark is granted a captive market in return for thousands of students purchasing meal plans at a cost of approximately $2,000 per semester. In the past, controversy has surrounded this partnership. In an effort to stop mandatory dining fees, students sued Auburn University, University of Alabama, and University of Alabama at Birmingham. The case was dismissed by the judges. Students are still required to purchase more than $300 worth of Dining Dollars each year. These can be used on campus or at off-campus locations. All students must purchase Dining Dollars, unlike meal plans that are only available to freshmen. Off-campus restaurants have protested against the fees. They must pay Aramark to be eligible for business. Tom Mac Dermott, a food service consultant, said that students have increased their expectations for healthier foods and more variety in recent years. Contractors allow universities to concentrate on research and education while experts handle the cooking and service. Without the bulk buying power and expertise of companies like Aramark, many universities had difficulty providing dining services. According to him, 70% of colleges and universities employ contractors to provide food or upgrade facilities. Dermott stated that there is no trend to return to self-operated food services. Dermott stated that universities are increasingly using outside companies in recent years. Some schools are resisting this trend. The University of Georgia has its own dining services. Yale University ceased using contractors and assumed control of its dining services a decade ago. Kennesaw State University, Georgia, ended its Sodexo contract and started making its own food. Dermott stated that most colleges and universities find outsourcing saves them money on wages and benefits. Dermott stated that “in addition to wages the contractor would have to provide benefits.” Semoon Chang, an economist, said that contractors have many benefits and does not necessarily hurt workers who earn more at Aramark than in other food service jobs. Change stated that outsourcing services are an effective way to lower costs for many companies. “Benefits include no fringe benefits like retirement, insurance, and social security; no payment for slow business such as summertime at educational institutions; no concern about possible unionization of employees; flexibility to change suppliers if necessary; and six dining service staff at the University of Alabama. Aramark has more than 500 employees. Aramark even has branches on campus of chain restaurants like Starbucks and Raising Canes. The university oversees the company’s compliance and quality control. Students form a student committee that makes recommendations to improve the quality and variety of food. Patridge stated that the university does not require minimum wage or other benefits for its workers. She said, “They work on campus as independent contractors.” Poole was born in Duncanville in rural Tuscaloosa County. His father’s draft number was announced, and his mother quit high school to help support her young family. Poole stated, “I grew in a family that valued hard work and getting a job.” This work ethic combined with the ability to access a university education could lead to a brighter tomorrow. He plans to finish his degree, even if his job is terminated. Aramark will offer education benefits to qualified employees starting in 2020. Employees who do not have a college degree will be paid tuition by the company. Employees will only be eligible, not their children. Davis left her Aramark position in May to take a job with an auto parts manufacturer. This job offers higher pay and benefits as well as year-round employment. Davis stated, “The more you age, the more you realize that this is not for you.” I found something better. I can build up money and can see a huge difference. “I’m so happy to be off that campus.” Additional reporting by Hailey Auglair, Melissa Brown. Food is Work: 2019 Southe
The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi has established the rn Foodways Alliance, an institute that explores the labor of food through films, podcasts and other media. To produce four interconnected stories, the SFA collaborated closely with AL.com and the Montgomery Advertiser as well as the Clarion Ledger and Mississippi Today. They shine light on campus dining at Auburn University (Alabama State University), Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi–the largest public universities of Alabama and Mississippi.