Seasonal workers at Elon University face inequalities

ARAMARK workers receive benefits, still have challenges

By Marlena Chertock

April 28, 2011

Kathryn Thompson plays with her one-year-old grandson, Josh, during her break at Acorn Coffee Shop. Thompson is a seasonal worker and is laid off during the summer. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

Seasonal workers can be found all around Elon University. They make your sandwiches, empty your trash and swipe your Phoenix Cards. They go on unemployment, have food stamps and have outstanding bills to pay. At least once a day, you will most likely have an interaction with people struggling to pay their bills and live off their wages. These people are facing the realities of seasonal work.

All ARAMARK employees are seasonal workers, whereas other departments at Elon University employ year-round workers, according to Director of Physical Plant Robert Buchholz.

Inequality is embedded in society.

It is seen in multiple ways, through health insurance costs, salary and the number of jobs workers hold.

At a time of national budget deficit, cuts in multiple sectors and talk of raising taxes, there are people struggling more than the typical American family. These people are seasonal workers.

Preparing food for Elon students seasonally

Kathryn Thompson, an ARAMARK worker at Acorn Coffee Shop, also works in the cafeteria at Southern Middle School during the year. She works two jobs to make enough money to pay her bills, she said.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Thompson is a seasonal worker at Elon. She works on a seasonal basis, only during certain times of the year. The university schedule dictates that she work when students are attending classes.

Both of her parents attended Elon in the 1950s. They majored in education and were teachers around the town of Belmont, N.C.

“I like the atmosphere,” she said. “The students sometimes make you smile.”

Cathy Chambers also works at Acorn. She said she makes a good gross amount, but doesn’t bring that home. Her bills can amount to $889 a month, for medical expenses and her house utilities, she said.

Thompson, Chambers and other ARAMARK employees work many hours to feed Elon students. But they don’t always make enough money to pay their bills or medical debt.

The seasonal nature of work creates inequities throughout all universities.

Roles of serving and being served

“What’s taking so long?” two male students said while they waited for their food in Varsity Sports Grille.

“What is she doing, getting with one of the cooks?” one teased about a waitress.

This is one interaction between students and workers. Not all are as mean-spirited.

Students and workers are placed in different roles on a campus. The students study, have fun and eat. The workers are there to serve students, cooking, feeding and cleaning after them.

“This role of serving and being served creates inequality, even if just in the mind,” said Ken Hassell, an associate professor of art whose work focuses on social, economic and cultural inequalities. “Inequalities are formed from systemic problems.”

He photographs and makes audio recordings of people in Appalachia, who are often the object of stereotyping.

Working seasonally means unwanted breaks

“I make good money here,” Chambers said. “But we’re laid off so much.”

Elon has many breaks for students, and when students go on breaks so do workers.

“I wish we didn’t have so many breaks,” she said. “It makes it hard to catch up on bills. I fall behind.”

Robin Fogleman, who works at Varsity, doesn’t blame ARAMARK for the breaks.

“It’s not ARAMARK’s fault,” Fogleman said. “It’s the university schedule. ARAMARK doesn’t decide breaks.”

The university operates on a semester schedule, with a fall and spring semester, so there is not as much need for food during the summer. There are summer sessions offered but enrollment decreases from during the year.

Some ARAMARK employees work in the summer, but the number of workers is much less. Approximately 20 to 30 workers are employed for the summer, said Jeff Gazda, the resident district manager of ARAMARK.

Providing jobs, benefits for community members

Many workers have been with ARAMARK for 25 or 30 years. The company provides jobs for the community, Gazda said.

“I’m not at the top of the organization here,” he said. “Turn the pyramid upside down. I’m working for my management staff. I’m proud of working for the company because of that.”

Four workers started as hourly employees and eventually became managers, said Megan Phelps, a senior human resources manager of ARAMARK.

“Some people don’t want to take that route, and that’s fine,” Gazda said. “Some people are comfortable in their roles. They get to spend time with their family at the holidays. But we encourage promotional opportunities.”

ARAMARK has a program called “thrive bucks,” where employees are recognized for hard work and good attitudes. Employees can collect these bucks and redeem them for gift cards.

“We make sure everyone’s appreciated and recognized,” Gazda said.

The company has repeatedly been ranked high in terms of ethical standards and working conditions.

ARAMARK ranked No. 1 in FORTUNE magazine’s 2011 list of “World’s Most Admired Companies.” In 2010, the company was also recognized as one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies” by the Ethishpere Institution. BusinessWeek named ARAMARK one of the “Best Places to Launch a Career” in 2009.

ARAMARK didn’t offer so many benefits to its workers until students at Harvard University began a strike in 2006 against the campus employer to raise worker salaries and improve working conditions. Students pointed out some of these discrepancies and ARAMARK responded accordingly.

There are many student and non-student organizations in North Carolina and the United States that work to raise awareness of worker rights and working conditions. The Western North Carolina Worker’s Center educates allies, partners and leaders in the defense of worker rights.

ARAMARK offers its workers several benefits. But some seasonal workers are still struggling to pay their bills and earn enough money to live on.

“The idea of having the summer off is very nice, but hard because you get behind on payments,” Fogleman said.

She has worked at Varsity for eight years and lives 10 minutes from campus. Her husband works at an electrical contractor in Greensboro and also makes an hourly wage.

Gazda said he tells workers upfront that this is seasonal work. Nothing is kept secret.

‘It’s still not enough’

Cathy Chambers is an ARAMARK employee who works at Acorn Coffee Shop. She receives an hourly wage and said it is difficult to pay her medical bills. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

Chambers has $1,000 in medical bills alone to repay. Each month she has to decide which bill will go unpaid, she said.

“I have to sell and pawn my gold jewelry,” she said. “Sometimes I’m tempted to sell my kitchen table or couch, just things to get by. And I’ve done that.”

Two years ago Chambers found out she is anemic, a deficiency of hemoglobin that can cause a reduced number of red blood cells. She needs dialysis procedures often.

“I still owe the hospital thousands of dollars for two times in the emergency room,” she said. “There’s no way I can pay it.”

She also owes the hospital for the colonoscopy she had two years ago.

Chambers doesn’t receive medical, vision or dental insurance in the summer because it’s too expensive.

Sometimes she tells her story to the nurses and doctors. Earlier this year, a nurse sent her a letter, along with five $20 bills tucked inside, that said she didn’t have to pay anything for her most recent treatment.

Chambers said she often receives gifts because of her illness and inability to make monthly payments. People have given her clothes, money and food.

She’s hoping someone will give her an old computer so she can start a second business selling makeup. She also wants to be able to pay her bills online, she said.

The dining hall workers are paid on an hourly basis. ARAMARK offers a starting wage of $10 an hour, higher than the minimum wage of $7.25.

The starting wage at ARAMARK is 40 percent higher than the minimum wage at other hospitality and dining locations, Phelps said.

Even with the higher wages and benefits ARAMARK provides, many of these workers say they are still unable to pay their bills.

“You make decent money,” Fogleman said. “But that’s nothing when you have a second mortgage, car and house payments, groceries, guitar lessons for your son. It’s still not enough.”

Thompson tries to pay all her bills, she said. She has to pay some late.

“You know what bills are next and if it will be late,” she said. “You ask yourself will you have enough by then, what are you going to have to do without?”

Fogleman has to decide which bills she can pay on time and which can wait, she said.

“We’ll owe medical bills the rest of our life,” she said of her family.

Her husband was diagnosed with Langerhans Disease two years ago, a rare disease in which abnormal cells migrate from the skin to lymph nodes. It can cause bone swelling, severe rashes and lymph node enlargements.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Workers employed by the university are paid more than the hourly seasonal workers employed by ARAMARK.

While Rudolph Singleton cleans all of McEwen Dining Hall, Fogleman makes food for students in Varsity. They work in the same place, but receive very different salaries.

Singleton has been a custodian at Elon for three years. His wife is also a custodian at Elon.

Singleton cleans McEwen and several Greek houses every day. He often says, “Have a great day,” or “How are y’all doing?” to passing students.

He works in a division of Physical Plant. Physical Plant employees include a brick mason, landscapers, housekeepers, recycling and trash collectors, plumbers and electricians, mechanics, automotive shop workers, carpenters and painters.

Workers employed by the university are full-time employees and receive a higher salary than seasonal workers.

The average salary for a typical Physical Plant employee varies substantially depending on many factors, but mostly how long a worker has been employed. The starting salary is around $20,000 and the average is around $35,000 to $40,000 a year, Buchholz said.

The salaries of administrative leadership could not be released, because of Elon’s status as a private university, said Dan Anderson, the assistant vice president and director of university relations.

For seasonal ARAMARK employees, the average salary may amount to $20,000 a year.

Employed, but on unemployment

Fogleman is not caught up on her bill payments from last summer. It’s a hardship to be on unemployment and pay health insurance, she said.

Every summer, most of the workers at Varsity go on unemployment to receive money when they are laid off.

Most ARAMARK workers go on unemployment during the breaks and summer.

The current rate of unemployment in Alamance County for January was 10.8, compared to 10.6 last year, according to Lisa Arnette of the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina. Figures are delayed a few months for federal reporting.

In 2010, with the recession in full swing, according to Arnette, the rate of unemployment was 11.0 in May and 10.6 in August.

The national rate of unemployment was 8.8 percent in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of unemployed people in the United States is currently 13.5 million.

The rate of unemployment in Alamance County, North Carolina has stayed steadily high over the last year. Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

During breaks between semesters, ARAMARK employees are temporarily laid off and then return to their positions when the new semester begins, Gazda said.

“This is typical for employees serving higher education institutions where the employment is seasonal,” he said.

ARAMARK files unemployment for its employees, he said.

“Not all companies do that,” Phelps said.

Thompson had only been on unemployment once before she worked at Elon. She worked at a car factory in Mebane, N.C. The plant was shut down in 2003 and Thompson and many other employees were laid off.

Now that she’s been working at ARAMARK for three years, she’s been on unemployment every summer and sometimes during the breaks, she said.

“I wish I could send my grandchildren to summer camp,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money.”

Thompson grew up on a campground. Her parents made their farm into a camp for young kids during the summer.

The food staff at the camp was mostly people who were cafeteria workers in schools during the year, she said. They needed summer jobs.

Her mom lives on the campground. The cabins and stoves are still there, Thompson said.

Health care discrepancies

Last year Fogleman put her son and husband on her ARAMARK health insurance, but not herself.

“It’s too expensive,” she said. “Last year it was $224 to cover just yourself or other dependents.”

People who are making less money are paying higher premiums and charges for health insurance, said Beth Warner, associate professor of human service studies Beth Warner. She researches and teaches about social justice issues.

ARAMARK pays 80 percent of costs when employees go to the hospital and the other 20 percent comes out of their pockets.

The wealthier and higher paid an employee is, the more his employer pays for his health insurance, she said. It’s a perk of being a CEO.

“In essence, lower income people at Elon pay more for health care than higher income people,” she said. “That’s what happens everywhere. There’s part of the problem in the U.S.”

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, Thompson said.

“About every middle class person knows that,” she said.

Seasonal work as a social issue

In theory, capitalism ensures equal opportunities to all, Hassell said.

“But that’s not always the reality,” he said.

The reality is that disparities exist and not everyone has equal access.

In David Shipler’s 2005 book, “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” he writes about the American Myth. It is similar to the American Dream, which states if people work hard they can become successful and work their way up the ladder to achieve what they want, what they dream.

But this is a myth, Shipler writes. Frequently, people in America work long hours for years and don’t move up the ranks. They get stuck in low-income jobs and cycles of poverty.

Seasonal workers are necessary for a capitalist economy, said Rebecca Todd Peters, an associate professor of religious studies. Peters researches economics, globalization and teaches classes about wealth and poverty.

They fill a certain gap, she said. But they also face a myriad of interwoven difficulties and complexities.

“The structure of this economy is to squeeze the most out of workers for the least,” said Ted Smukler, public policy director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) in Chicago. IWJ is an organization that educates and mobilizes religious communities in the United States on issues of wages, benefits and working conditions.

People are laid off and hired for less, he said.

For universities, it would be hard to change the seasonal work schedule, as it’s built into academic schedules.

Elon operates on a semester schedule, so workers only work when the university is in session. Some work during the summers, but the number remains lower than during the year.

“The economy is moving towards a situation where many jobs are contingent on temporary jobs,” Smukler said. “Some are perma-temp workers. They work seven, eight years for the same employers but aren’t getting benefits that employees get.”

This is an important issue, Peters said.

“What happens to people who are filling those jobs in-between,” she said. “How do we as a society respond to that? We need these workers. But at the same time, they need something more than the way in which they work.”

Some people can benefit from seasonal employment, working summer jobs and finding a retail job during the holiday season, Smukler said.

“But clearly, it leaves workers vulnerable, without income for a long amount of time and puts strains on the state offices,” he said.

ARAMARK may be ranking high in BusinessWeek, but this doesn’t reflect the lives of most of the seasonal workers on campus.

This is not necessarily the company’s fault, like Fogleman said. But it does allude to problems in the economic system and people who fall behind, like the people Shipler wrote about in his book.

View this article as a PDF.

***

Cathy Chambers talks about second jobs

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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