How the company that supplies IC’s food treats its workers.
By Alyssa Figueroa
It is a multinational corporation raking in billions of dollars but paying workers an annual salary below the living wage. It once had a handbook for managers on how to fight unions in the workplace. It also made an appearance in the well-known documentary Super Size Me for its unhealthy food options in school districts. It’s Sodexo—the dining service Ithaca College chooses to serve you daily.
Nevertheless, anyone checking out Sodexo’s Web site would not have the slightest inclination that Sodexo has received a stream of criticism. It boasts that its company won an award for the most diversity and was named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies in 2010. It was also on Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies” list and even has a Sodexo Foundation to focus its efforts on Sodexo’s STOP Hunger campaign.
Yet, Sodexo’s self-satisfaction is misleading. Sodexo is the 22nd largest employer in the world, employing 380,000 workers in 80 countries to serve in schools, prisons, military bases, workplaces and hospitals. Sodexo may unintentionally be diverse, taking any employees it can get. After all, there have been several charges made against Sodexo for discrimination, including one filed by thousands of black employees who claimed they were segregated within the company—Sodexo paid $80 million to settle the suit.
And yes, Sodexo did make the ethical companies list, along with Nike. There has been criticism of Ethisphere Institute, the think tank that put Sodexo on its list, and other corporate social responsibility lists, from a blogger at The Christian Science Monitor citing their ambiguous way of choosing the companies as well as receiving companies’ information from the executives. So before admiring Sodexo, remember Wal-Mart and Goldman Sachs also made Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies” list.
Monica Zimmer, a public relations representative for Sodexo, said, “We are very proud of our awards and recognition. We cannot speak on behalf of the other companies.”
Sodexo is also proud of their Sodexo Foundation, which seeks to fight hunger. However, the company, which claims to have had an annual revenue of $7.7 billion in 2008, has only given the foundation more than $12.7 million in grants since its founding in 1999, making their total contribution for 2008 only .02 percent of their income.
Ironically, based on the wages Sodexo pays their employees, some could even use help affording food.
“Some workers talk about how they live week to week, paycheck to paycheck,” said Pat*, a Sodexo dining service worker at Ithaca College.
According to two Sodexo dining service workers at Ithaca College, new workers start off making around $8.50. That means a new employee working 40 hours a week year-round makes $17,680, while the annual living wage for Tompkins County for a single person is $23,104.
“Sometimes it’s really hard labor you do,” Pat said. “I think the workers here should make more because the way the economy is things are high here. It’s hard to live on that kind of wage here.”
There are a host of other issues plaguing the Sodexo workers at IC. For example, the health benefits these workers receive are rather basic, and two workers mentioned they are not covered for eyeglasses. Pat said of the working conditions in the dish room: “It’s hot in there, and to me, it’s dirty.” There is also a large amount of food thrown away each night that workers are not allowed to take home.
Another issue is managers’ strictness with overtime.
“I’ve heard from other workers that if you have overtime one day, they make you leave early the next day,” Pat said. “I guess they want you to stop your work [right when your shift ends] but you’d probably get in trouble if you left it there. So it’s one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’ts.”
The workers earn overtime from working extra during an understaffed day or simply having a lot of work. During these days, employees have to work in different areas they were not hired for, which then may result in workers not being able to do their jobs particularly well. Pat said lending some extra effort on a busy day isn’t even appreciated.
“Even if you go out of your way, your thank you is ‘You just got paid overtime.’”
Pat also said the company practices favoritism.
When workers stand up for themselves, they are either listened to or told, “You can just leave if you don’t like it.”
“When managers favor people, it brings your morale down,” Pat said. “That puts people against each other, and you start resenting that person, but it’s really not their fault.”
Yet, Sodexo isn’t going anywhere. IC has a contract with the company until 2015. David Prunty, director of Campus Center and Events Services, said IC has been happy with Sodexo’s responsiveness to requests, and the college is not in charge of the relations between employer and employee.
“You have to realize that there’s a clear line of who employs who,” Prunty said. “But clearly, if there was something egregious going on, that would be something we would be very concerned about as an institution.”
It seems that if the workers want results, they are going to have to stand up on their own. Dining service workers at the college have not fought for a union in more than a decade. Before Ithaca College contracted with Sodexo, the workers, who were employed by another food service company, failed to implement a union by a few votes. One chef was promised and given a higher position and raise after voting “No,” Pat said. Several workers were paid off, and those who wanted a union were threatened that they would not receive a raise.
Since then, the employees haven’t mobilized.
“I don’t think workers are satisfied,” Pat said. “They just tolerate [the conditions] because they think ‘It could be worse, we could not have jobs.’” Pat said the workers also feel a sense of loyalty to Sodexo, are uninformed about unions and the fact that one cannot get in trouble for supporting one, and are scared. Pat feels joining a union is important.
“I think we should do it so there is more fairness and better wages.”
Even so, the workers might have to deal with the same backroom deals and bribes trying to form a union under Sodexo.
Tanya Aquino, senior communications specialist for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said Sodexo has amped up its anti-union campaign.
“They hold all workers in mandatory meetings or even one-to-one to discourage them from unions or ask if they support a union,” she said. “It’s a very intimidating move.”
SEIU currently has a “Clean Up Sodexo” campaign, which has both a Web site and a Twitter account. The campaign started in fall 2009 after Sodexo workers from across the country met in a conference in New Orleans and decided to come together to raise awareness.
CleanUpSodexo.org, which gathers information directly from workers and students who work with them in committees, reports the various issues brought against Sodexo, including low wages, costly yet basic health insurance options and wage theft.
The site also reports that Sodexo has discouraged unions by threatening employees and has even fired a five-year employee at Loyola University who supported forming a union.
Zimmer, however, defended accusations against Sodexo, though she could not discuss wages, which are “confidential.” She said the company believes workers should “hear all sides of the issue” to make an informed choice to join a union without intimidation. She said SEIU is currently targeting Sodexo to expand their union.
“It’s unfortunate that the SEIU is promoting untrue allegations against Sodexo to further its own interests and attract new members during its ongoing dispute with rival unions,” she said.
Some Sodexo workers said they did not expect to make that much working for a dining service.
“You don’t go into this job for the money,” said Taylor*, another IC dining service worker.
After all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for dining room attendants is $8.05.
August Schneeberg, research and communications specialist for SEIU Local 200United, said although poverty wages are the norm, they are not justified. Many service jobs, he said, are currently low-paying, just like trade jobs were years ago before employees such as the auto workers and teachers rose up and formed unions.
“The fact of the matter is every job was a low-wage job before it was organized,” Schneeberg said. “There is no reason the people who work hard in the cafeterias of unbelievably wealthy colleges and universities have to live in poverty—especially not workers of Sodexo, a global corporation which boasts staggering profits.”
There are dining service workers, however, who do not settle for unfair treatment. Dining service employees of local Cornell University and Syracuse University are both unionized. At Syracuse, they start out making $12.17 per hour, above Syracuse’s living wage of $11.54. These employees are also unionized by SEIU, which gives them a concrete validation that they will be treated fairly in their workplace.
Sodexo fails at their slogan of “making every day a better day.” The illusion of being a caring corporation is merely a tactic to rake in more dollars. On their site they claim to recognize and reward their employees, and they even state the benefits of companies that make Fortune’s “Best Companies to Work For”—a list they didn’t even make.
Yet, Alex*, another IC dining service worker, does not feel appreciated.
“They just haven’t found robots able to do our job yet,” Alex said. “I’m sure if they could they would.”
Still, most workers enjoy their job because of the relationships they form with students.
“The reason I like my job is mainly because of the students. I love working with students, I love talking to students,” Pat said.
“They’re doing this because they love their work and they love being around young people, and to be treated with disrespect or treated like a child themselves is really an awful way to go throughout your working life,” Aquino said. “So they should really be standing up for something better, standing up for the future of their children, for a better life for their families, and a better work environment.”
*Names of workers have been changed.
Alyssa Figueroa is a sophomore journalism and politics major who thinks fair wages are delicious. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.