Shut down: UVA’s dining hall employees unceremoniously dumped by Aramark

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. Photo: Zack Wajsgras 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. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

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. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

 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.

Cece Cowan. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

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.

 

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FortunateJosephmitchell carrUnemployed in California too!!Alyssa Recent comment authors
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2vote2vote
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2vote2vote

I understand why Aramark would act in a totally bloodless manner; they are the equivalent of those health industry robot accountant services that run our hospitals and much of our private health providers (doctors) These are Bean Counters and it is they, not the hospital, who are firing nurses and doctors for their cries for help with supplies during the pandemic. Are such cries bad for the hospital, no. we the public will go regardless. If anything, we like hearing that there is agitation for our mutual protection. No, such breaking of the rules makes THE INVESTORS jittery – and… Read more »

April Jenkins
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April Jenkins

North Carolina aramark is the same way. No one has said nothing about do we have time to use to get a little income. Are we going to have a job. They have cleaning jobs they could offer

2vote2vote
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2vote2vote

If nothing else, UVA could hire them for the summer as contract cleaners.

C Singleton
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C Singleton

All Aramark employee’s are being affected by this unfortunate situation from state to state.

Ali
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Ali

Yes, deffently. The entire 50 states is infected with this virus. We can support each other through this process by being there for one another. Just know, everyone is getting laid off, it is not just Aramark.

Alaina Finley
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Alaina Finley

I understand completely what you guys are going through. I work for Aramark, right after spring break we were put on temp leave and now being laid off. We got laid off right when the college had got shut down. I have two jobs and both are shut down. The government had said, they would pay our lost wages for anyone shut down due to the virus and it will come through unemployment and it hasn’t happened. My unemployment is only 215 a week, not to make ends meet but, I know inside myself not to worry. I do have… Read more »

Alyssa
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Alyssa

From my understanding not all contracted employees got that $15 so add insult to injury… I pray you all get some resolution

Unemployed in California too!!
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Unemployed in California too!!

Sadly, Aramark isnt the only contract Foodservice Co. that has no heart. Compass has done the same thing to not only their hourly associates but to many middle management positions. Some Directors were forced to take a 50% cut in their salary or face unemployment. Honestly, I have not heard of any DM or VP or CEO taking a cut in pay to help the associates. Unfortunately, it is only the almighty dollar!

mitchell carr
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mitchell carr

We are in an international pandemic. Is UVA still paying them for the contract? The feds are ironing out a relief package. Aramark is a victim here too. They also have bills and obligations and if they don’t pay them they lose it all and nobody has a job. I am unsure what these folks believe their obligation should be other than to follow the laws of the state and sound business practices which mandated they do whats best to save the company. It seems as though everyone expects aramark to save for a rainy day when those who lost… Read more »

2vote2vote
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2vote2vote

These folks make no mention of UVA notifying them as still being on a payroll. why can’t the University step in and say, hire them for the months until classes start as contract cleaners – support any work that needs doing on campus?

Joseph
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Joseph

This is second hand information, I’ll admit that I Did Not see the email referenced in this rant. I was told by a friend that works at UVA – he received an email stating “executives at UVA will take a 10% reduction in pay”. That seems like an embarrassing figure to announce, it struck me as odd to announce. People making six figure salaries losing 10% means nothing. Hourly workers, living paycheck to paycheck are laid off without a second thought. Dumped on the system to collect unemployment when they are not needed and welcomed back when they are. Aramark… Read more »

mitchell carr
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mitchell carr

While I sympathize with the plight of anyone affected by this pandemic I think we all need to realize a sad truth and that is that even UVA and Aramark are living paycheck to paycheck. This is what happens when people demand a higher standard of living than they are willing to pay for in tuition or taxes. For the record these contracts are given to the lowest bidder that meets the standards requested by UVA. If UVA demanded the protections as you ask then the contract would rise dramatically and tuition and government subsidy accordingly. We simply cannot afford… Read more »

Fortunate
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Fortunate

This is my second time reading this story and I have something to say about it. I am fortunate to be one of the Aramark employees still working at Ohill and I feel very sorry for those who are not however since this story it does not tell you that people who were laid off are receiving more pay than those of us risking our lives to provide meals for students who could not go home, also Uva stepped in and made available an emergency fund to help with your bills regardless if you are laid off or still working… Read more »