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When Charisse Buchanan, a Pitt dining worker of 33 years, found out two weeks ago that the University’s dining halls would close and she’d be out of a job, one thing went through her mind.
“How am I supposed to pay my bills now?” Buchanan said.
Sodexo, the University’s dining contractor of 29 years, laid off a majority of its 400 to 500 workers without pay over spring break, when Pitt adjusted its dining services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both dining halls on campus, Market Central and The Perch at Sutherland Hall, are closed, while smaller to-go locations such as Market To Go and the Cathedral Café remain open on limited hours. The dining workers who service these locations will continue to work and receive full salary until the end of the academic year. The University has agreed to pay its student workers their full salary through the end of the semester, excluding student dining workers.
According to Traci Benjamin, a spokesperson for the SEIU Local 32BJ union that represents Pitt’s dining workers, the current situation is similar to what happens over the summer, when Pitt cuts about two-thirds of its dining workforce due to a decrease in enrollment. Before the most recent round of layoffs, Pitt’s dining workers were scheduled to work through the end of April. Though they’ll go without pay for the remainder of the semester, the laid-off dining workers are still eligible for health care and unemployment benefits, according to Abdou Cole, the Sodexo district manager.
But two dining workers said they’re now facing significant financial hardships.
Buchanan said she has a husband and two children to feed and still needs to make payments on rent and bills. She said she’s collecting unemployment, which helps cushion the financial blow of being unable to work, but she is losing about $300 every week.
“I’m not able to pay my bills in full,” Buchanan said. “[I’m] sometimes struggling to put food on the table.”
Buchanan is only one of many workers struggling right now. Beatrice Fadrigon, a dining worker of two years and a junior psychology major, said she’s also struggling to pay bills and buy groceries. She said she isn’t sure why she was laid off in the first place, given that she worked at Market To Go, which is still open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday. Fadrigon said she talked to Human Resources and her manager, but neither would tell her why she was laid off or when she’d have her job back.
“It felt like there was no effort [by Pitt or Sodexo] to try to find a place for us to work or to get [us] funding or a way to earn money,” Fadrigon said.
But Cole said Sodexo is doing everything it can to make sure its workers have the financial support they need.
“Wherever possible, we are temporarily reassigning staff to open Sodexo sites,” Cole said. “In instances where team members are not able to be temporarily reassigned, we will do whatever we can to help them by … ensuring medical benefits will remain active for the duration that the employees would typically work.”
Sodexo has also granted its employees up to 21 days of paid sick leave for those that “have a confirmed case of COVID-19 or are asked not to come to work for COVID-19 related symptoms.”
Fadrigon said she is not receiving financial assistance of any kind from Sodexo.
“They’re not paying us,” Fadrigon said. “I’m currently relying on grant money to pay for my groceries and utilities.”
Fadrigon is also not confident that her and other dining workers’ situations will improve if the pandemic continues into the fall. A new contractor, the Chartwells Higher Education subsidiary of British multinational Compass Group, will take over dining services on July 1 after Sodexo’s current contract ends on June 30. Compass Group spokesperson Meredith Rosenberg did not indicate that the company would pay its workers at Pitt in the fall, should mass layoffs continue into the 2020-21 academic year.
“In the event the situation continues beyond July, and it is unsafe to bring workers back to campus, start dates would be adjusted and associates may continue to collect their unemployment benefits,” Rosenberg said.
At universities that currently contract with Compass Group, dining workers have also been laid off. Bon Appetit Management, the Compass Group subsidiary at the University of Pennsylvania, laid off its entire 140-person dining staff two weeks ago without pay or benefits for the rest of the semester. An official at the Penn dining workers union said the decision came from Compass Group, not the subsidiary company, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
After more than 8,000 people signed a petition telling Penn to pay its dining workers, Penn agreed Monday afternoon to pay the laid-off Bon Appetit workers in full through May 15. Fadrigon said she hopes Pitt does the same.
“Ultimately, paying workers is [the dining contractor’s] responsibility, [but] I think Pitt should help out in some way,” Fadrigon said.
University spokesperson Kevin Zwick said Pitt is not responsible for paying dining workers who are out of a job.
“We have urged all of our contractors to do what they can to address the impacts to their employees, but under our contractual relationships, we cannot compel them to do so,” Zwick said. “We are hopeful that governmental action will help provide people with a meaningful bridge through this period.”
Zwick declined to comment on Penn’s recent actions and whether Pitt would act similarly.
President Donald Trump signed a $2.2 trillion stimulus package into law on Friday, which will send $1,200 checks to every American who makes less than $75,000 per year, with an additional $500 per child. But tax experts say Americans likely won’t receive payments for another month or two, which could leave Pitt’s dining workers without financial assistance until May or June.
In the meantime, Buchanan said she’d have more peace of mind if Sodexo just paid her the wages she was used to receiving — at least from March through April. She added that she was eager to get back to serving up meals at The Perch, a job she’s been doing for more than half her life.
“I just want to go back to work,” Buchanan said. “I really need my paycheck.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Charisse Buchanan’s statements regarding Pitt and Sodexo.