Protesters march in support of SOU food-service workers

Fifteen employees could lose state benefits if the university lumps them into a contract with an outside management firm
Alice Pangburn, who works for the Department of Human Resources Vocational Rehabilitation Services in Salem, rallies about 35 SEIU members who protested Tuesday at Southern Oregon University in support of 15 food-service workers. Mail Tribune / Bob PennellBob Pennell

ASHLAND — Fifteen food-service workers at Southern Oregon University face the possibility of losing their status as public employees, a prospect that prompted fellow union members into hold a demonstration.

The workers' employment standing depends on whether the university keeps them as SOU employees or rolls their duties into a 10-year contract it signed last year with Minnesota-based A'viands Food and Services Management.

If SOU decides to cut them loose, the food-service workers would lose their membership in Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System and access to public-employee benefits, said Laure Stockton, Service Employees International Union Local 503 organizer in Medford.

About 35 members of the SEIU marched Tuesday across the SOU campus to show support for the workers.

A task force was formed in January by SOU and SEIU to negotiate a compromise for the benefit of the workers, but the group has been unable to reach an agreement, said SEIU and university officials.

"I'm still hopeful that we're going to come up with a solution for everyone," said Jay Stephens, SOU director of human resources. "The task force is meeting fairly regularly and bouncing ideas off each other. ... I really hope we are finished very soon."

When SOU put out a request for proposals in April, searching for a food-service provider to replace Sodexo Inc., it gave contractors the option to leave the 15 workers as SOU employees, which was the arrangement under Sodexo, or hire those employees as their own, said Stephens.

A'viands indicated it would hire the employees, Stephens said.

Moving the workers to A'viands would save the university about $105,000 annually, Stephens said in December, based on estimates derived from SOU's operations with Sodexo.

That figure was put forth after SEIU filed a grievance against the university in August demanding it carry out a feasibility study to compare the cost of keeping the employees versus handing them over to A'viands.

Now, SEIU organizers said, the university estimates the move would save $220,000 annually, according to SOU estimates based on its operations with A'viands.

Stephens said he could not confirm that figure, but acknowledged there was a "significant," difference between the two estimates.

Stockton said SEIU offered SOU a proposal that would cut the workers' schedule back from 12 to nine months out of the year, which added up to about $105,000 in savings for the university, but the proposal was declined.

"We thought that we were giving SOU the savings it was looking for, and everyone was on board, but it appears that there was a miscalculation," Stockton said. "Now we're back to the phase of looking at different ideas."

Stockton said she hopes negotiations between SEIU and SOU will lead to a fair outcome for the workers. If that doesn't happen, the union is prepared to file a grievance against SOU that could eventually lead to outside arbitration, she said.

Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Talent. Email him at samuelcwheeler@gmail.com.


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