Sodexo employees fear benefits cuts

The state’s Department of Labor has ruled that Sodexo’s recent policy change is legitimate, but one of UVM’s own professors and state senators has said he is concerned for workers’ rights. 

In response to the Affordable Care Act and its mandate that employers be responsible for nearly all of its full time workers’ health insurance, management personnel from Sodexo– a company that employs around 800 people statewide, reported- said they have adjusted their policy to comply with federal law and avoid per-person penalty fines. 

“To match the Affordable Care Act definition of a full-time employee, Sodexo is changing how we define hourly non-exempt employees as full-time [to] someone who works an average of 30 hours or more per week over a 52-week period,” Sodexo spokesman Greg Yost said, speaking to a provision in the healthcare act which states that full time employees must have 95 percent of their health care costs covered. 

But critics, including University professor and Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden and Vermont Fair Food Campaign organizer Kelly Mangan, said they are skeptical that the adjustment was prompted just because of the new legislation. 

 “Claiming that the cutbacks are because of Obamacare is a Red Herring,” Mangan said. “It’s completely fictional. They probably came out and said that they weren’t actually cutting hours because somebody in their legal department figured out that it’s actually a violation of federal law for any company to cut workers’ hours for the purpose of avoiding paying for health benefits.”

After being what he called “inundated” with complaints from Sodexo employees who said they  felt exploited, Baruth wrote a public letter to Annie Noonan, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Labor, in early September recommending that she investigate Sodexo for potential illegal activity. 

“If true, these allegations would represent a very serious infringement on the rights of Sodexo workers not just on the UVM campus – where the company holds an exclusive contract for food services – but on various campuses of the state colleges as well,” he wrote Sept. 5. 

The Department of Labor, however, decided that Sodexo was acting in its right. Nearly a week after Baruth inquired, the department concluded that the new policy did “not violate the law or a contract,” reported Sept. 13. 

Yost said that although the workers who do not meet the new full-time criteria will not be eligible for benefits, they will have other options.

“They will have access to new options effective Jan. 1, 2014 including state medical exchanges, federal medical exchanges and Medicaid, depending on personal circumstances,” he said. “Also, Sodexo will provide employees who lose eligibility for paid vacation or sick leave an equivalent increase in pay to compensate.”

Mangan, who is advocating for Sodexo workers to ally themselves with the larger movement of fast food workers in America, said she sees this behavior as nothing but exploitive. 

“To take these folks that have been working for your company for years, who have done so at near-poverty wages, to turn around and take away their benefits and their retirement is dreadful,” she said. “What good does a wage increase do you if you’re sick and you have to go to work because you can’t take a day off?” 

Sodexo, which grossed over $400,000,000 in profits last year, maintains that its commitment to employees is genuine. 

 “We have been very open and honest with [our employees] as we prepare for a transition under the Affordable Care Act,” Yost said. “As part of that preparation, we have put in place extensive resources to support our employees. Sodexo cares about our employees and we are deeply committed to them.”

At a Vermont Fair Food Campaign meeting Aug. 20, Mangan discussed her opinion of the consequences of removing benefits.

“People were openly bawling because they were so scared about losing their healthcare because they have several family members who depend on it,” she said.

In the meantime, Baruth has said to several media organizations that he intends to pursue “legislative recourse” on the matter, perhaps bringing in Sodexo managers to testify at hearings that his economic development committee will hold to further investigate the issue.