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Working In These Times

Monday, Dec 20, 2010, 12:45 pm

Sodexo Workers in Pennsylvania Claim Wage Theft

BY Kari Lydersen

Global food services firm Sodexo has been facing increasing criticism from workers for mistreatment and shoddy business practices.   (Photo courtesy SEIU)

Last week, current and former food service workers at St. Luke’s and Good Shepherd hospitals in Allentown, Pa. filed a class action lawsuit alleging wage theft by their employer Sodexo, the target of an international unionizing campaign and a long-time example of the perils of outsourced service work. (In 2009 In These Times published an expose about Sodexo kickback schemes with food providers.)

Sodexo workers at the Pennsylvania hospitals, where union 32BJ SEIU is organizing, say they are forced to work off the clock to meet what they call “Sodexo’s unrealistic production goals.”

They say they typically work 15 to 45 unpaid minutes daily, including being forced to work through breaks and before clocking in, in order to produce and deliver hospital meals on time. The lawsuit filed Dec. 14 is part of an international campaign by the SEIU against Sodexo, which employs about 120,000 people at hospitals, universities and other institutions in the U.S. and also has operations in 80 countries including Canada and Mexico.

Sodexo's workforce includes 45,000 U.S. employees paid by the hour, under what the company says are good terms—which spurred Working Mother Magazine to name them a top hourly employer this spring.

But workers at Good Shepherd and St. Luke’s say they make as little as $8.25 an hour and have many complaints about the way they are treated by Sodexo.

Named plaintiff Shari Kurtz, who prepares salads at Good Shepherd, said low pay has ironically made it hard for her family to afford health care, even as they feed staff and patients at the hospital. She said:

Sodexo is trying to squeeze every last dime out of us. I’m struggling to pay for my kids’ health care, and this huge, multi-billion dollar company is cheating me out of my hard earned wages.

About 1,000 people work for Sodexo in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley—at Good Shepherd and St. Luke’s along with institutions including Muhlenberg College, Moravian College, Lehigh University, Lafayette College and Sacred Heart Hospital. Workers at Sacred Heart, Good Shepherd and Lehigh Valley Hospital went on strike for one day in October. Sodexo workers in Georgia, Louisiana and Ohio also walked out in solidarity.

The Pennsylvania campaign against Sodexo started in fall 2009, and since then, according to the website Clean Up Sodexo, “Sodexo has waged a relentless campaign of coercion to intimidate them, including spying on workers engaged in union activity.”

A press release from 32BJ SEIU, says:

Approximately 80 current and former workers could receive back wages plus penalties, interest and attorneys fees from the suit.  Similar lawsuits have netted hundreds of thousands of dollars for low wage service workers. 

In Atlanta, students at several universities have been supporting cafeteria workers in their bid to unionize and get better conditions and pay from Sodexo. Workers there allege Sodexo illegally showed anti-union videos and mistreats workers, including by denying breaks to pregnant workers.

Sodexo was also a target of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in southern Florida. In August Sodexo joined prominent fast food companies and grocery stores in agreeing to pass on to workers one 1.5 cents more per pound for its tomatoes and to demand its suppliers respect a workers rights agreement.

This fall, workers in other countries including France, the Dominican Republic and Colombia also protested against Sodexo. In Brazil in early December, union leaders met with the Labor Minister over complaints about Sodexo, including that it forces would-be workers to get pregnancy tests. Sodexo is expected to win many contracts for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. But critics say Sodexo's record should give government agencies pause in deciding whether to hire them.

The Clean Up Sodexo website says the company’s meal-counting errors at the Pennsylvania hospitals have put state and federal reimbursement moneys on hold.

Sodexo’s website says its benefits include:

…Competitive local wages, company-paid sick leave and a variety of health benefit plans that allow employees to choose the coverage and premium levels that meet their needs. On average, the company pays about two-thirds of the cost of all health insurance premiums. Sodexo's benefits eligibility is the most liberal in the U.S. service industry. It is the only industry firm to offer long-term disability benefits to hourly employees. Sodexo recently expanded its 401k plan and the company matching benefit to reach more employees - hourly and salaried - than ever before.

It also lauds its diversity:

Sodexo is the benchmark company for diversity and inclusion in its industry. It recently was ranked the number one company for diversity by Diversity Inc., and consistently is recognized among all companies in North America as a best place to work for minorities, multicultural women, veterans, and people with disabilities. Over the last five years, the number of minority employees has increased 23 percent, and minority and female front line and managerial ranks have increased by 11 percent.

Critics say Sodexo is a prime example of the risks of out-sourcing service work to contractors. Clean Up Sodexo says:

Contractors promise to deliver better service at lower cost, with the goal of freeing up tight budgets as well as scarce administrative time. However, some Sodexo clients have found themselves trapped in a situation where outsourcing creates more headaches than it solves either because of poor financial performance or poor management and staffing practices.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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