Pitt dining worker union alleges ‘direct violation’ of contract by dining contractor, raises safety concerns

About+400+to+500+dining+workers+were+laid+off+in+the+spring+under+then+dining+contractor+Sodexo+when+Pitt+adjusted+its+dining+services.+

Carolyn Pallof | Senior Staff Photographer

About 400 to 500 dining workers were laid off in the spring under then dining contractor Sodexo when Pitt adjusted its dining services.

By Thea Barrett, Staff Writer

James Hines, a Pitt dining worker of 17 years, said it’s been challenging for his family to survive on his current salary. He said his hours have been limited to 37.5 hours a week from his usual over 40 hours a week.

“It’s been rough,” Hines, who currently works as a cashier at The Perch, said. “We’re finally starting to feel stable again, but if Pitt sends kids home or doesn’t bring them back, I don’t know what we’re going to do. This is barely enough.”

By cutting hours for dining workers like Hines and therefore limiting their pay this fall, Sam Williamson — the district director for SEIU Local 32BJ, the union that represents Pitt’s dining workers — said Compass Group is committing a “direct violation” of the union’s contract with the company. Williamson said the union contract guarantees workers 40 hours of work a week, to “the extent that that is at all possible.”

Article 5 Section 4 of the union’s contract with Sodexo, and now Compass Group, says that “the employer shall make its best effort to maximize 40-hour positions as much as possible.” It also says that any concerns with not maximizing these positions will be addressed by the Labor Management Committee.

“We have an ongoing dispute with Compass Group over that complete disregard for that protection, and we’re still fighting it out with them,” WIlliamson said. “Even just losing three hours of work a week, that’s $50 or $60 a week, and if you’re relying on every cent of your income to pay your bills, pay co-pays or just buy your groceries, this is having a huge impact on these workers.”

Quintin Eason, the local vice president of operations for Compass Group, said the company met with the union to discuss the decreased dining hall traffic caused by the pandemic. Eason said Compass Group “temporarily adjusted hours slightly in order to maintain the working status of all associates.”

“Compass Group is doing everything they can to provide for their dining workers during this time,” Eason said.

Joe Beaman, Pitt’s director of dining services, said the pandemic affected how many hours are available for workers. He said reduced building access and use led to reduced late night and weekend dining hours and temporarily closed dining locations. Seating in dining halls partially re-opened on Monday as the University transitioned to the Guarded risk posture, the lowest level of Pitt’s three-tiered reopening system.

We continue to review the situation and hope to continue to expand operating hours and locations in the future as conditions allow,” Beaman said.

Williamson said despite the challenges the pandemic has provided for all businesses and individuals, he expects Compass Group to ensure that employees can provide for their families as agreed upon in the union contract.

“The hours reductions are the subject of an active and ongoing grievance and continue to be a hardship for members trying to pay their bills,” Williamson said. “We expect Compass to live up to their obligations under the collective bargaining agreement, which include scheduling employees for 40 hours/week.”

Hines is one of about 400 to 500 dining workers who were laid off in the spring by Pitt’s then dining contractor Sodexo, as the University adjusted its dining services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The University replaced Sodexo with Compass Group as its single-source dining contractor beginning July 1.

Hines said he’s still worried about his financial situation even though he is working now, which he wasn’t in the spring. Hines — who is also a floor technician at a UPMC hospital — said he was forced to claim unemployment insurance after being laid off in the spring.

“Students are leaving each weekend because they’re worried about being on campus and I don’t blame them,” Hines said. “So they’re cutting hours, letting us leave before our shifts are over, but if that keeps up I’ll have to go back on it, especially if things aren’t better in the spring.”

Pitt agreed to pay student dining workers, but not other dining workers, in the spring. Laid-off dining workers were still eligible for health care and unemployment benefits, according to Williamson. He said even though workers had this guaranteed benefit, the summer was difficult for workers because there was less work than normal due to no summer camps, conventions or in-person summer classes.

Despite decreased hours, Williamson said most former Sodexo employees were able to keep their job during the dining contractor transition. He said Compass Group offered employment to all workers and most ended up being hired back, except for a few who didn’t pass a “thorough University-required background check.”

“There ended up being some disputes that Compass didn’t hire because of background check issues,” Williamson said. “But the overwhelming majority of people who wanted a job ended up being hired by Compass Group.”

Eason added that Compass Group tried to give workers similar job titles to what they had under Sodexo.

We have retained as many existing personnel as possible with similar wages, health and wellness benefits and seniority, offering as close to the same positions they held previously taking into account modified service,” Eason said.

Hines also raised concerns about Pitt’s COVID-19 safety measures in dining halls. Hines said he doesn’t agree with the University’s plan to re-open The Eatery at Market Central and The Perch because of safety concerns, such as how the guidelines about social distancing and mask wearing are enforced, as well as the effectiveness of the contact tracing program in dining halls.

He said if he were to rank Pitt’s COVID-19 safety measures from one to 10, he would give it a two.

“They’re talking about opening [the dining halls] up, but you can’t eat with a mask on,” Hines said. “This is a recipe for disaster, when we’ve already seen problems with other universities.”

Eason said Compass Group is committed to keeping the work environment safe for dining workers.

With reduced operating locations due to the pandemic, our main goals are to keep everyone safe, working and receiving benefits,” Eason said.

Dr. John Williams, the head of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office, said last Thursday that while during the Guarded risk posture the University will allow larger gatherings, more in-person classes and some sit-down seating in dining halls, it is important that students still maintain proper mitigation measures like wearing a mask and social distancing.

Hines added that he struggles between not wanting to risk infecting himself or his family and wanting to provide financial stability for them.

“I don’t want to get sick, but I don’t want to lose my house. It’s an awful position to be in. I wish the University was protecting us more.” Hines said. “The anxiety is just unreal.”

Beaman said students and staff are required to follow all of the COVID-19 precautions, such as placing signage to encourage social distancing, face mask requirements and introducing sanitization stations. He said Pitt is working to ensure that all people follow the rules.

The dining services team implemented enhanced safety protocols, including frequent cleaning and sanitizing, physical barriers and hand sanitizer stations available at each dining area,” Beaman said.

In spite of these safety concerns, Hines said he loves his job and is looking forward to meeting new students. He said he also considers older students to be friends.

“I get along with the students, I look forward to meeting the new students, the old ones come up and say hi, I consider them friends,” Hines said. “I didn’t just want to give up, this is a lot for everyone and we’re just trying our best.”

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