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Timed Out: UVM Food Service Workers Allege Poor Treatment By Management

Taylor Dobbs
Cindy Smith, a Sodexo employee placed on leave by management, led supporters in a chant on her way into the University of Vermont administrative building to deliver a petition.

Cindy Smith left work early on March 27. She says she’d finished all of her work preparing food at a University of Vermont dining hall and the head chef told her she could go home. She clocked out 14 minutes early. The next week, she says, she was called into the manager’s office and put on “investigatory leave” for alleged violations of her employer’s attendance policy.

Smith works for Sodexo, the university’s food services contractor, and says company policies and management are disrespectful to employees.

“I truly believe I was set up,” she says. Smith says the manager at Cook Commons doesn’t like her, and used Sodexo’s points-based attendance policy to push her out.

Smith's situation has become a flashpoint for a larger, long-running effort to secure more worker protections for Sodexo employees at UVM. More than 1,000 people signed a petition to UVM administrators calling on Smith to be reinstated and to ensure better worker protections for Sodexo employees on campus.

It’s the second time in as many years that workers advocates at UVM have pressured university officials to do more to protect food service workers. In late 2013, labor advocates successfully lobbied the administration to stop Sodexo from implementing a new policy that would change the way workers qualified as “full-time” and, critics said, cause many employees on campus to lose benefits. Sodexo officials claimed the change was necessary under the Affordable Care Act.

Now, critics of the company are focusing on the company’s treatment of employees and its attendance policy, which they say pressures employees to come to work even if they’re sick. They also say management practices make employees fearful that they’ll be punished, or even lose their job, if they speak up about working conditions.

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
Richard Cate, vice president for finance and treasurer at UVM, reviewed a petition from Cindy Smith's supporters on Friday. The supporters said the petition had at least 1,000 signatures.

Advocates say public pressure is important now as UVM negotiates a new contract with Sodexo. They’re urging university officials to insert language in the contract that ensures stronger worker protections.

Currently, the contract requires university approval of changes to the benefits for Sodexo employees on campus, but advocates want it to specifically mandate certain protections, such as time off and a livable wage as defined by Burlington city ordinance.

They also want the university and Sodexo to address what some employees say is a culture of disrespect.

“I’m sick of being degraded. I’m sick of being harassed. I’m sick of being treated like a little kid. I’m sick of feeling like I can’t do my job right when I’ve been doing it as long as I have,” Smith says. She’s on paid leave still, awaiting a meeting with Sodexo management to find out if she’ll be allowed to return to work.

The policy Smith allegedly violated allows workers a limit of seven “points” in a rolling 12-month period. Workers are assessed a point if they miss work or half a point if they arrive late or leave early. Smith’s manager told her going into 2015 that she was approaching her points limit. She says he didn’t tell her that she was also being assessed half points every time she left early with -- she believed -- permission from the head chef.

According to Sodexo documents presented to Smith when she was put on leave, this happened on 17 separate occasions (totaling 8.5 points) from October 28, 2014 to April 2, 2015 – the day she was put on leave.

“It was happening for a while,” she says, “and not me knowing, every time I left I got a half a point, even though a supervisor told me I could go. So I had no idea that the half-a-point and the half-a-point and the half-a-point were leading up to April second when I did my job in the morning, was called into the office … and he handed me an investigatory leave slip.”

"We have strict policies regarding employees not coming to work when they're sick." - Enrico Dinges, Sodexo Spokesman

Not all of Smith’s points came from those early departures. According to the documents her manager handed her when she was placed on leave, Smith missed work on January 30 because she was sick. The document says she presented a doctor’s note confirming that she was sick. Smith was assessed one point for the missed day.

That policy – of counting illnesses toward the seven point limit – is the target of heavy criticism from workers advocates on campus who say it pressures food service employees to come to work even if they’re sick.

Sodexo spokesman Enrico Dinges says company policy is very clear on working while sick.

“We have strict policies regarding employees not coming to work when they’re sick,” he said. “We have food safety training and sanitation guidelines, and we’re specific in the fact that it’s against company policy to come to work with certain symptoms that can impact food safety or their own safety.”

Dinges says that is not in conflict with the company’s official policy of assessing points for work missed because of an illness. He also notes that points are assessed per “occurrence,” not per day, so an employee who misses three consecutive days because of an illness would only receive one point.

"You basically have to ensure at all times that nothing goes wrong in your life during work hours." - Deb Ploof, Sodexo Employee at UVM

Still, critics say the point system is inflexible and inconsiderate of the employees, who are not protected by a union.

“You basically have to ensure at all times that nothing goes wrong in your life during work hours,” says Deb Ploof, an employee who works at Sodexo’s location in the university library. Ploof and Smith both say they’ve seen employees struggle with the decision of whether not to leave work to pick up a sick child.

They also say this policy isn’t the only problem in the workplace.

“I have seen people reprimanded in front of their coworkers until they were in tears. I have some good friends [here]. They have been told they were useless. They were disrespected, intimidated, and threatened with termination and write-ups, just for trying to do their job to the best of their ability,” Ploof says. “People being reprimanded for too much prep, too little prep, sweeping the floors earlier than scheduled even though they had nothing else to do at that time. No one should have to go to work every day wondering and worrying if they will make a wrong move, say the wrong thing, or stress about what may or may not happen during the course of that day. This is enough to make anyone sick.”

Smith agrees. She has several notes from her doctor that show concern about the workplace environment in the kitchen she works in.

“I continue to be very concerned about Cindy Smith,” one note says. “Specifically, she reports what sounds like an unusually high amount of workplace stress. Cindy is a strong person who is able to speak up when she sees either a workplace problem or senses an interpersonal issue at work. While this might make others uncomfortable, it is not a fault to be able to express oneself.”

"They're afraid to speak out. They're being treated terribly. Not only me, but my coworkers around campus." - Cindy Smith, Sodexo Employee at UVM

Speaking up has been rare among Sodexo employees in recent years. When advocates were lobbying against the full-time policy change in 2013, there was a notable lack of Sodexo employees publicly involved in that movement. Many employees, approached by reporters at that time, refused to speak publicly for fear of retribution.

“People are afraid in there – in Billings and Cook Commons,” Smith says. “They’re afraid to speak out. They’re being treated terribly. Not only me, but my coworkers around campus.”

At a rally on Friday in support of Smith and Sodexo workers at large, Ploof called on other Sodexo workers to join her in publicly talking about their conditions.

“If there’s anoyone, any of my coworkers out there that are still employed or not employed, I’d like to urge them to please come forward, make your voice heard. Because until that happens, we’re not going to see any changes with Sodexo.”

Dinges, the Sodexo spokesman, said the company has no policies about what employees may say publicly outside of work hours, other than that they cannot speak on behalf of Sodexo.

“There would be no effect if an employee on their own time, representing their own views, were to speak to the media,” he says. “We don’t have a policy preventing freedom of speech.”

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