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SOU will work with union on status of workers

Southern Oregon University and the Service Employees International Union have agreed to form a joint bargaining committee that will determine whether 15 university workers will maintain their status as public employees.

The food service workers would lose their membership in Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System and access to public employee benefits if SOU decides to roll their duties into a 10-year contract it signed in August with Minnesota-based A'viands Food and Services Management, said Kathie Best, an SEIU Local 503 spokeswoman.

"We are prepared to file a grievance and have reserved the right to do so," said Best, following a Dec. 10 meeting with SOU officials. "I hope that they make the right decision and decide to keep these workers under the SOU umbrella."

The bargaining committee will be formed in January and should reach a decision by March, said Jay Stephens, SOU director of human resources. Three SEIU representatives and three SOU nonclassified employees are to take part.

"We've had to jump through a lot of hoops to get here, but we are very hopeful that an agreeable outcome can be reached," Best said.

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 of whether they would rather leave the 15 workers as SOU employees, as was the arrangement under Sodexo, or take those employees on as their own, said Stephens.

A'viands indicated it would take on those 15 employees, Stephens said.

That move would save SOU about $105,000 annually, Best and Stephens said.

One of the 15 employees, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said she wouldn't be able to afford A'viands health insurance package, which she estimated would cost a family of three $1,000 a month. That's about half the monthly wage for most of the employees, she said.

As state employees, the workers pay between $40 and $70 a month for health insurance, she said.

"If we lose our jobs with the state, none of us will be able to afford insurance "… and we lose PERS," she said. "This would really turn my life upside down."

After SOU and union official met with the workers Monday and agreed to enter into negotiations, she said, "I am more hopeful, because before I didn't feel like there was any hope."

In August, SEIU filed a grievance with the university demanding it carry out a feasibility study to compare the costs of both contracts, Best said. After settling that grievance, SEIU filed an alternate proposal with SOU, asking it to consider keeping the 15 workers as employees.

"We filed an alternate proposal that we felt would provide equal quality and savings as the university's plan, but the university didn't seem to agree with that," said SEIU senior researcher Andrew Boeger.

SOU rejected the alternate proposal and, in order to stave off another SEIU grievance that could eventually lead to outside arbitration if it's filed, agreed to be part of a committee to negotiate an agreeable outcome.

Three SEIU representatives and three SOU nonclassified employees are expected to sit on the bargaining committee, Stephens said.

"The plan at this point is to try and work something out by March that's beneficial to everybody," Stephens said. "We have a pretty good relationship with our local SEIU union. When we have problems, we are able to sit down and talk about them and work them out "… we're optimistic."

SEIU represents about 200 employees at Southern Oregon University, said its Medford organizer Laure Stockton.

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