With a new, long-term food service contract in the works at Southern Oregon University, the future is up in the air for a dozen employees of Pathway Enterprises Inc., whose mostly mentally or physically disabled staff members have been working behind the scenes in SOU's main kitchen for the past 15 years.

With a new, long-term food service contract in the works at Southern Oregon University, the future is up in the air for a dozen employees of Pathway Enterprises Inc., whose mostly mentally or physically disabled staff members have been working behind the scenes in SOU's main kitchen for the past 15 years.

"We're all pretty nervous, kind of chomping at our fingernails waiting to see what happens," said Rick Simpson, director of contract services for Medford-based Pathway Enterprises.

So far, what Simpson has heard from the university "sounds hopeful," concerning whether the school's likely soon-to-be food service provider Minnesota-based A'viands Food and Services Management will renew a contract with Pathways after the contract with current provider Sodexo Inc. ends this month.

Simpson is expecting to speak with representatives with A'viands on Aug. 27, he said. A similar meeting three years ago with representatives from Sodexo Inc. resulted in a $750,000 contract.

Ten of the employees who work in the dish room at SOU's Cascade Complex dining hall have mental and/or physical disabilities, and use paychecks they receive working the job to support themselves and live independent lives, Simpson said. A handful of the employees who have more severe impairments live in low-income housing provided by Pathway Enterprises in Medford.

Three-year dishwasher Adam Titus pays his own rent in Ashland with the $9 hourly wage. Titus, 31, graduated from Ashland High School in 1999, and has lived here his entire life, but did not want to share what disability he suffers from.

"I hope I can still have a job here, and they keep our contract," Titus said. "Where will I go?

"They have the right to do it, but I don't see why they would. Why would you want to get rid of these people that work so good?" said Titus, who hasn't started looking for another job.

The fact that Pathway Enterprises is doing the work for what it would cost Sodexo — or less — is about the only fiscal incentive the food service provider had for bringing in the disabled workers, but they did, Titus said.

Representatives from the Roseville, Minn.-based A'viands could not be reached for comment.

Concerning its possible contract with A'viands, Jim Beaver, SOU director of interactive marketing and media relations, said the university is "moving ahead as if it were going to be approved."

A'viands will take over on Sept. 1 if a deal is reached, Robitz said. If a contract agreement between it and Pathway Enterprises hasn't been met by then, the dozen employees keeping the dishes shiny at the Cascade Complex dining facility will be unemployed.

Providing all of the dining services at SOU goes beyond the capability of Pathway Enterprises, Simpson said, so the decision of whether to include the competitive community rehabilitation program is left up to the food service provider.

About 30 Pathway Enterprises employees also work cleaning the residence halls at SOU, Simpson said. That contract, worth about $900,000 annually, will need to be restructured when SOU opens its new residence halls in September 2013.

The Medford organization's workforce is about 75. About 65 of those employees suffer from a disability and work janitorial, dishwashing and other low-level jobs serving a variety of businesses across the Rogue Valley, but losing the SOU contract would be a huge blow, Simpson said.

"The fact of the matter is, lots of people are looking for work, and it's especially difficult to find work if you have any barrier to employment," he said.

University Housing Director Tim Robitz said A'viands expects that it could generate between $8 million and $15 million of revenue over the contract period, which will include managing a 27,800-square-foot, one-story dining and community hall being constructed along with two new residence halls north of Ashland Street on the east side of SOU's campus.

The organization plans to provide between $1 million and $3 million for capital improvements to campus dining facilities if it is awarded the contract, Robitz said.

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.