By Sydney Halleman
When Cece Cowan first heard about Aramark Dining Services, the company that contracts with UVA to staff its dining halls, she was impressed. Cowan liked the global reach of the company and its potential relocation opportunities, especially Georgia, where she wanted to buy a house for herself and her three small children. The company offered her a significant raise from her previous job at UVA Medical Center, and its recruiters touted the number of employees who had been at Aramark for over a decade. In February, Cowan accepted the gig, and began working at the Observatory Hill Dining Hall.
Now, she is one of the scores of contract employees at UVA Dining who were abruptly laid off earlier this month, with no severance or rehiring timeline. UVA declined to say how many workers had been laid off, referring the inquiry to Aramark, which did not answer the question.
Mounting bills and uncertain futures are just some of the issues facing UVA’s Aramark employees after they received phone calls from supervisors telling them not to report to work. The layoffs come after UVA shut its doors to students for the rest of this semester in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. While the university assured the community it would “honor all existing commitments” to full- and part-time employees, it made no promises to its more than 800 contracted employees, like those in the dining hall and custodial services. (The mid-March closure included all dining halls except Observatory Hill.)
Earetha Brown started working at UVA Dining in 1991, making just $2.50 an hour. After over 20 years of service, Brown was informed that she would receive no compensation after her sudden and unexpected layoff earlier this month. “A person like me has been there, dedicated, going to work every day, not missing a day, doing what they asked of us. We love those students. I dedicated my life,” Brown says. “And now you get a call, a phone call that you don’t have a job.”
Since UVA announced its closure shortly before workers were scheduled to return from spring break (during which most dining hall workers are not paid), some workers have not received a paycheck since February.
Shamia Hopkins, a lead cook at Rising Roll Gourmet, was one of those expecting to head back to work after spring break. Instead, she was told to immediately close the café and not return. “We just didn’t get anything. It was just like, ‘Okay, file unemployment, here’s your layoff letter.’ That’s all we got.” She has three kids, plus, “I have a car payment, I have car insurance, and I still have to buy groceries.” Hopkins says. “I have a son that’s 1 year old. I still have to buy diapers and stuff like that.” Unemployment, she says, will not cover her bills.
In a letter, Aramark told employees they were being placed on “temporary shutdown status,” and could cash in any remaining sick days before filing for unemployment. And though they were given no assurances of being rehired in the fall, Hopkins says she hopes to return to work and is worried about using all of her sick days. “You never know when you’re going to need it when we do come back,” she says. The company said employees with health benefits could maintain them at least through the end of June, and added that they are “actively working…to offer additional support.”
The layoffs come after a hard-fought victory by the Living Wage Campaign, which had advocated for better pay for UVA’s non-academic employees for over 20 years. In March of last year, the university announced it was raising wages to $15 per hour for UVA employees, and in October it extended the promise to full-time contract workers. “As a university, we should live our values—and part of that means making sure that no one who works at UVA should live in poverty,” UVA president Jim Ryan said in a statement last March.
Now, however, employees like Cowan and others are relying on Charlottesville City Schools to provide food for their children, because they cannot pay their bills. “I did apply for unemployment, and I got some of that today. But I mean, a hundred dollars a week isn’t really going to cut what I’m used to bringing home,” Cowan says. Some Aramark supervisors appeared to be reaching out to employees to try to help. Cowan says a supervisor offered her an additional nine paid sick days. And another employee shared a text she’d received saying the company would begin providing ready to eat meals (up to five days a week) to employees who needed them, starting April 1. Others said they had not been told about the meal service.
Some workers assumed that UVA would offer to feed employees from the stock of perishable food available in the dining halls. Instead, the university donated all of the excess food to area charities, including the Salvation Army. “Why not your employees?” Brown says. Others point to UVA’s colossal $9.6 billion endowment and its refusal to refund tuition or fees to students as evidence that the university could afford to compensate its laid off workers while school is closed. (The university did refund students’ room and board for the remainder of the semester.)
On March 17, student activists released a petition calling for UVA to (among other things) provide paid sick leave for its non-student workers, including the contracted Aramark employees at UVA Dining. The petition calls the layoffs “immoral” and “severely threatening to the wellbeing of these individuals, their families, and society as we allow certain people to be neglected and treated as disposable.” The petition has garnered over 865 signatures.
“Things are getting really serious. We need action. We need solutions to these things,” says Joie Asuquo, a fourth-year student and one of the co-authors of the petition. Asuquo is motivated by the students at universities like Harvard, who organized a petition with 6,500 signatures demanding that the university pay its subcontracted workers.
Asuquo says that students’ unrefunded mandatory fees should be used to help compensate laid-off workers. A FAQ page on the university’s website says the decision not to refund is to “enable us to pay our employees.” One such annual fee, $246 per regular session student, is paid directly to Newcomb Hall, one of the dining centers.
“I was just doing some math and it wasn’t adding up,” Asuquo says.
Living wage activists are beginning to realize that there may be another fight ahead of them. “One woman said it’s our job to advocate for people that could lose their jobs if they spoke up for themselves,” Asuquo says., “That’s what keeps us going.’”
Asked for comment, Wesley Hester, director of university media relations, said in an email that UVA recognizes the “unprecedented and rapidly changing situation” and was “in conversation with contractors” like Aramark, but did not provide any more specific information.
Workers will be waiting for a better response. “I gave UVA my life and they gave me nothing,” Brown says. “ It hurts.”
Updated 4/1 to note that UVA refunded students’ room and board.