Sodexo, a multinational company that among other things operates dining halls on US college campuses, recently rescinded a company policy that denied company sponsored health insurance to thousands of its employees.
Sodexo, which describes itself as “a quality of life services” provider, last year changed its definition of full-time employee. The change caused many full-time dining hall workers to be reclassified as part-time, which made them no longer eligible for the company’s health insurance benefit, vacation time, and sick leave.
The change sparked an organized resistance by campus food service workers and students supporting them that eventually led to Sodexo’s reversal
“Because Sodexo workers across the country stood together with UNITE HERE and spoke out against Sodexo’s mean-spirited cutbacks, we were able to fight back and win,” read a media release by UNITE HERE, the union that led the organizing effort.
Sodexo said that it will take six months to implement its reversal, but UNITE HERE is calling on the company to reinstate the full-time classification for all workers improperly classified as part-time.
In 2013, Sodexo announced that to comply with the Affordable Care Act, the US’ new health care law, it was changing its definition of full-time work.
In order to be classified as full time and to be eligible for company benefits such as health insurance, a worker would have to work an average of 30 hours a week over a 52-week period.
The change meant that 4,000 Sodexo campus food service workers would no longer be eligible company benefits because student dining halls where they worked were closed during the summer months, making their average work week over a 52-week period less than 30 hours.
UNITE HERE immediately protested Sodexo’s changes and pointed out correctly that ACA did not require the change that the company was making .
UNITE HERE, which represents Sodexo workers at colleges such as Fairfiled University in Connecticut, Central Connecticut State University, George Washington University in Washington DC, and St Mary’s College of California, began reaching out to Sodexo workers that weren’t union members.
UNITE HERE’s outreach and the company’s action led Sodexo workers at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and Emerson College in Boston to begin organizing a union.
On May 1, Sodexo workers at Curry supported by students and faculty presented a union representation petition to Sodexo management.
“We want to be treated fairly,” said Julie Pemberton, a member of the worker delegation presenting the petition, to the Currier Times. “We’re looking to get our sick time back, our vacation, our health (insurance). Any employee who works more than 30 hours per week is entitled to it. That’s what we’re after.”
At Earlham College in Indiana, Sodexo workers formed an organizing committee that collected signatures on a union representation petition. In April, the committee presented the petition, which was signed by 88 percent of Sodexo’s workers, to Sodexo management.
The week before the workers presented their petition to management, about 200 students, faculty, and staff rallied on campus to support them.
At the University of Kentucky, the administration recently decided to privatize the campus’ food service, and Sodexo was one of the vendors being considered for the new contract.
United Students Against Sweatshops, which was leading the movement against the privatization of campus food services, held rallies and conducted a sit-in against privatization and in doing so called attention to Sodexo’s decision to deny health insurance to some of its employees.
After the sit-in, UK administration announced that Sodexo would not be considered for the new contract and instead awarded it to Aramark, one of Sodexo’s main competitors for student dining hall business.
In June, UNITE HERE organized a rally in Washington DC calling attention to Sodexo’s decision to deny health care to its employees. The union called on Congress to change the loophole in the ACA that allowed Sodexo to deny health insurance to some of its employees.
Under the present law, some education employees who don’t work a full 12 months a year are protected from being classified as part-time and thus having their health insurance eliminated; however, employees of contractors at schools are not protected.
“Teachers aren’t part-time, and neither are we,” said Chuck Long, a Sodexo worker at Curry College at the June 12 rally. “(The elimination of our health care benefit) is a major blow to those of us who have made our careers in food service. If Sodexo is allowed to do this who else will follow suit?”
After Sodexo announced that it was rescinding the full-time definition change, UNITE HERE said that it would continue to demand that Congress close the loophole that allowed Sodexo to make the change.
“Let’s remember that Sodexo misled people when they blamed the ACA for taking away these benefits,” said UNITE HERE’s media release. “We will continue to push for fixes for the remaining problems with the ACA so that its promise becomes a reality for working people.”