A contract in question

Lower Sproul food service company comes under fire

Kevin Cheung/Sally Littlefield/File

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Several years before the company Chartwells was selected to operate restaurants in the newly renovated Lower Sproul Plaza complex, it faced backlash from food service workers at Northeastern University for an array of alleged mistreatment.

Workers there alleged receiving poverty wages without benefits, sick days or vacation days. Female workers also said managers had sexually harassed them. One worker accused his manager of not calling 911 when he was having a heart attack.

Bryan MacCormack, the community liaison for the campus’s Progressive Student Alliance in 2012, said that a coalition of about 50 student groups formed and that the Northeastern student government passed a resolution in support of the workers. The campus’s Chartwells employees joined a food and hotel service union, Unite Here Local 26, in April of that year.

“The students felt a really strong solidarity with the workers,” MacCormack said. “They would call us, and we’d respond.”

The Southern Illinoisan, a regional paper, reported in 2010 that Chartwells employees at Southern Illinois University Carbondale made significantly less than workers employed directly by the university.

In May, a worker with Chartwells in Florida filed a lawsuit in federal court against the company, alleging that after she took medical leave because of a viral infection, her supervisor advised her to either resign or be fired, in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Chartwells said in a statement that its workers are treated with respect and receive market-competitive wages. The company serves dozens of universities across the country, including UCLA and UC San Diego.

With mounting criticism from student groups and labor unions over the role of private contractors working for the university, Chartwells is signed up to run a multimillion-dollar operation, featuring restaurants at the central hub on campus. Now, with less than a week left before the Student Union opens, the ASUC Student Union Board of Directors is working to codify labor standards for Chartwells employees.

Choosing Chartwells

The ASUC Student Union board, which has led the Lower Sproul project since its inception, signed the contract with Chartwells after comparing multiple bids on the project, according to Joe Wilson, chair of the board’s Business Development and Finance Subcommittee.

The board chose Chartwells after reviewing all options against metrics such as food quality, the revenue they would generate for the ASUC and the types of services they would provide to the campus, according to Connor Landgraf, who was ASUC president when the decision was made in 2013.

The board is now developing an addendum to the contract that would include sections on employee wages and benefits, as well as on working environments.

“To be honest, I was not aware of a lot of these issues with Chartwells,” Wilson said. “I’m appalled by some of the allegations.”

Landgraf said Chartwells’ relationship with its workers was something the board looked at. He added that another firm was removed from consideration because it had a history of poor worker relations but that he didn’t remember discussing any similar incidents with Chartwells.

“The mix of food they provided really appealed to the team and the stakeholders at the time,” Landgraf said, adding that Chartwells showed a commitment to healthy food and locally sourced vendors.

Before the campus signed a contract with Chartwells, the board considered asking a property manager to invite local businesses to occupy the space, Wilson said, but the board felt that managing multiple contracts with multiple local businesses would give the ASUC and students less control.

Cal Dining was also asked to make a bid, but director Shawn LaPean said in an email that Cal Dining had recently been awarded the renewed contract at Memorial Stadium and decided it did not have the capacity to take on a new project.

The board ultimately opted to rent the property to a private contractor, which would then manage the food services provided in the Student Union.

Contracts on campus

Chartwells will be just one of many private contract firms operating on campus this coming year.

The university uses at least 45 private contract firms to employ custodians, security officers, parking attendants and food service workers, according to a report published Aug. 7 by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, a union that represents campus workers employed directly by the University of California and advocates on behalf of campus contract workers.

The report alleged that university contract workers are paid as much as 53 percent less than workers employed directly by the UC system in similar positions.

The campus and AFSCME, however, dispute certain wage figures. UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore said that contractor ABM Custodial employees make $13.95 an hour. But pay stubs from this August, provided by AFSCME from campus ABM employees, indicate some make as little as $9.30 and $9.70 an hour.

The contract between the university and AFSCME already puts certain restrictions on when campuses can or cannot contract out work. For instance, the university cannot do so merely for the sake of being able to pay employees lower wages and benefits than it would union workers, but it can use contract workers to fulfill the need for expertise not available internally. The contract does allow, however, the use of contract work for the sake of “financial necessity.”

UC President Janet Napolitano recently announced a plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 in 2017 for UC workers, including contract workers. But some workers and students have pointed out that the change does not go so far as to guarantee contract workers’ benefits and pay are on par with those of union workers performing equivalent jobs.  

Issues with contract workers on campus were brought up to the ASUC Student Union board during its July 22 meeting, when the Student Labor Committee organized campus contract workers employed by ABM to speak against the Chartwells contract.

At the meeting, one worker alleged she made $8 an hour less than a UC worker in the same job with the same amount of experience, while another worker said he didn’t think he would be able to send his children to college on his current salary.

“What UC is doing here is … condemning thousands of people who work at UC to lives of poverty and lives of exploitation,” said Todd Stenhouse, spokesperson for AFSCME Local 3299. “We are wary of any effort to contract out work — full-time work — that is normally done by UC employees.”

Antonio Ruiz has worked as a parking attendant at UC Berkeley for four contract firms over 21 years. He currently works for LAZ Parking, where he makes $11.50 an hour, and said he receives no benefits, sick days or personal days. A UC employee working the same job for the same number of years makes at least $24 an hour with benefits and vacation days, according to a UC contract and database.

Ruiz said he clocks in about 8 a.m. then works for five and a half hours before going to his second job at a hotel in Emeryville, where he works until 11 p.m. By the time he arrives home, his three children are often asleep.

“I cannot help them with their homework or feed them at night time,” Ruiz said. “They’re my world, so I have to work really hard in this situation. … I don’t see my kids regularly like a regular father should.”

On June 24, Ruiz filed a wage theft claim against LAZ Parking for $7,480 in stolen wages over the past three years, alleging that he was denied breaks. Another LAZ parking worker, Jorge Lopez, filed a similar claim the same day for $3,816.25.

LAZ has faced similar claims in the past couple of years last September, the California labor commissioner found that it illegally fired a Berkeley employee after he complained about his working conditions. The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement found that the company owed the same employee more than $2,000 in unpaid wages.

Both the city of Berkeley and the UC Berkeley campus have contracts with LAZ Parking.

Until an AFSCME employee informed him, Ruiz said, he was unaware that California state law entitles any employee who works more than five hours to a 10-minute break.

“I want to let (the Student Union’s Chartwells employees) know that they are not lonely. We are with them, so we are like a family,” Ruiz said. “I want to fight for our rights, for our families, for a better future.”

ASUC Student Union’s addendum

After hearing stories from the contract workers who attended the July 22 meeting, the ASUC Student Union Board agreed to add an addendum to establish the standards with which it expects Chartwells to treat its employees and to look into long-term options for making all Lower Sproul workers UC employees.

Angela Bello, who has been employed by Chartwells at Northeastern University for six years, had one piece of advice for future Chartwells employees at UC Berkeley.

“Never work with Chartwells without a union,” she said. “You have to have something to protect yourself.”

Natalie Yoon — a national organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops, which organizes students and workers employed by outside firms such as Chartwells for workers’ rights — said that although it can be difficult to hold private companies accountable for union busting, Chartwells is generally held more accountable on campuses where its employees have unions.

Wilson said that the board could legally cancel the contract with Chartwells if it provided 180 days’ notice — although this could delay the opening of the Student Union, which could risk the revenue it would generate for student groups.

“We wouldn’t want to … lose revenue to these groups, especially to students who are underprivileged or part of multicultural communities,” Wilson said. “It’s a complicated situation, and we’re doing our best to work through all the parts of it.”

Kelsey Finn, the Student Union’s executive director, said in an email that the addendum “will include language that guarantees Chartwells’ employees a prevailing wage, a full benefits array and a safe working environment.” Finn also said the board has begun discussing with Chartwells the possibility of paying $15 an hour to Chartwells’ full-time employees — in accordance with Napolitano’s recently announced UC minimum wage — as early as this year.

Finn said that Chartwells employees will make between $12 and $20 an hour in starting salaries, and that the $12 salaries include tips. Gilmore said UC employees who work similar jobs begin at $13.50 to $17 an hour.

Kristine Andrews, Chartwells’ higher education communications director, did not comment on the specifics of the contract with the campus but said in an email that “Chartwells associates are treated fairly with dignity and respect, consistent with our policies and procedures. Total compensation, not just wages but benefits as well, is competitive in the market.”

Although the campus’s contract with Chartwells details payments and royalties between the firm and campus, it does not include provisions regarding employee wages or labor standards.

Contact Sally Littlefield at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @slittlefield3.