After spending his last day working for Aramark on Tuesday, Lucas Mello said he has never been happier.
When the 21-year-old UF history junior was hired to work at the Reitz Union Starbucks owned by Aramark, he said he was not paid for training or overtime. But he said he was supposed to be. Customers weren’t allowed to tip.
Nobody taught him to separate milk types such as soy and dairy in different blenders like when he worked at a corporate Starbucks in Miami Springs, he said, leaving students purchasing drinks vulnerable to allergens and contaminants.
Aramark is a food service giant with a stock value of $7.8 billion, according to Forbes. It caters to school districts, correctional facilities, workplaces and universities nationwide. UF is one of the universities it is partnered with, and all food service locations on campus — excluding Krishna — are owned and operated by Aramark.
But allergens aren’t the only thing students have to worry about. Employees have filed complaints against Aramark for wage theft and withholding benefits from employees, said Jeremiah Tattersall, a field representative from North Central Florida’s American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The Alligator tried getting in touch with at least 15 Aramark workers for comment, but they did not speak out for fear of being fired.
Problems with Aramark’s dining experience
Zona Ahmed felt like a fool for purchasing a meal plan.
While browsing through the vegetarian options at the Fresh Food Company during Preview, the biology freshman said she felt safe getting a meal plan because she thought there were options to accommodate her dietary restriction.
At first Ahmed, 19, said everything was fine. But a month into her first semester, she said the vegan options stopped showing up as often in the dining hall.
“I’ve been eating out more often, even with the dining plan,” she said. “It’s not really what it seems.”
Gator Dining’s cheapest residential meal plan cost $1,765 for a semester that includes 10 meals per week, which is what Ahmed has. The most expensive residential meal plan cost $2,300 per semester for unlimited meals every week and extra Flex Bucks.
Tattersall, who has helped many Aramark workers file their complaints to the Florida Department of Labor, said the food provided on campus also isn’t fresh.
The 2019 Food Service Master Plan conducted last Spring through Brailsford & Dunlavey and Petit Consulting confirmed the same. The two services exist to evaluate critical problems on college campuses and offer solutions to fix them.
The report read that 81 percent of UF students with residential meal plans were dissatisfied because of the low food quality, and 69 percent said the disappointment was due to the low food variety — a problem for those with dietary restrictions.
This is why 52 percent of the meals went unused in Fall 2018, the report read.
Student satisfaction with Gator Dining is 62 percent, which is below the national benchmark of 71 percent identified by the National Association of College and University Food Services, the report read. It suggested that UF provides healthier food options on campus.
After analyzing this callout from the report, Aramark might not be the food service provider anymore, said Curtis Reynolds, the vice president of UF Business Affairs. He did not name what company may replace it.
The university renewed its 10-year contract with Aramark, which began in July 2009, to December 2020, Reynolds said. It gives UF about 10 percent of gross revenues and control over meal prices.
But the contract doesn’t give UF a chance to control Aramark’s food quality, according to the food service master plan report.
Reynolds said UF wants to have higher food quality and will include that in future negotiations.
When The Alligator asked if UF plans to negotiate more control over the programs and operations of its food service provider, Reynolds did not give a direct answer, yelled into the phone and hung up on the reporter.
Problems with wages and labor practices
Tattersall said the clients he has met with from Aramark said they were initially told they would work 30 to 35 hours a week. Instead, they work overtime and are not paid for the extra hours, according to complaints Tattersall has processed.
The U.S. Department of Labor mandates that employees who work more than 40 hours a week must be given time and a half pay. Otherwise, the company is committing wage theft.
Wage theft coincides with hour manipulation, in which managers document fewer hours than the employee actually worked that week, Tattersall said.
Good Jobs First is a national policy resource center that collected data of Aramark’s offense types. It reported that Aramark had 24 records of wage and hour violations with a total penalty of more than $9 million and 40 records of labor relations violations with a total penalty of $967,042 since 2000.
The workers who do not receive benefits struggle to maintain families or even their own lives, Tattersall said. About a dozen Aramark workers he spoke to depend on a food pantry to eat.
Reynolds said UF has no more than 1,350 employees under Aramark.
Tattersall said that since UF is going to go into negotiations with new food service companies, there is an opportunity for change.
“Aramark’s allowed to do whatever they want,” he said. “Now we have the opportunity to say: We’re going to be a top-five institution, we need a top-five dining experience, which means that workers need a living wage.”
Rally at President Fuchs’ office
Last Friday, workers and students decided they were fed up. Nearly 50 people showed up outside President Kent Fuchs’ office — and although many different groups were involved, everyone had one thing in common.
No one was a fan of Aramark.
The rally brought together Aramark employees, members of Graduate Students United, the Young Democratic Socialists of America, United Faculty of Florida, the Alachua County Labor Coalition and North Central Florida’s American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Ashley Nguyen, the coordinator for the Alachua County Labor Coalition, said she emailed Fuchs twice to set up a meeting to discuss the possibility of a living wage and once more to invite him to the rally.
“It would not be appropriate for me to meet with the Alachua County Labor Coalition,” Fuchs wrote in an email reply. He did not respond to The Alligator’s emails, and UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said he had no comment.
Charles Karcher, a 19-year-old UF international studies and English sophomore, said he believes that it is unfair that Aramark workers get such low wages.
“It’s important for us as students who aren’t threatened by Aramark as a company to stand up and try to improve the conditions of the people that are working for Aramark on our campus,” Karcher, the co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, said.
However, the rally last Friday was meant to support the living wage campaign and to advocate for Aramark workers on campus receiving fair pay depending on the calculation from the MIT calculator for Alachua County, Nguyen said.
The MIT calculator determines a living wage based on factors like how many adults are in the household, who is working and whether or not they have children.
“For the living wage as a campaign as a whole, you shouldn’t operate without paying your employees a wage that will help them survive without struggling,” Nguyen, a 22-year-old UF international studies and political science senior, said.
Negotiating for a living wage is possible. Aramark at the University of Virginia, as reported by The Cavalier Daily, originally paid its employees an hourly wage of $10.65 — but the university negotiated for Aramark’s employees to earn a living hourly wage of $15 this year.
The food service master plan recommends for UF to have local vendors for fresher food.
Reynolds said that UF will begin advertising in late June for food service vendors and should start negotiations by this Fall.
UF should close out the existing operator agreement by next Spring and have a new contract with a new food service provider starting next Summer, the food service master plan report read.
Marcus Milani, a 19-year-old UF political science and biology sophomore, said that while he works with the Young Democratic Socialists of America, he will continue to hand out flyers to students, promote the cause on Turlington Plaza and reach out to other organizations to partner in advocating for the living wage campaign.
“The university is aspiring to be a top-five public institution,” Milani said. “I don’t think that’s possible without having contracts with companies who run fair and ethical practices — which is not Aramark.”
Contact Stephany Matat at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @StephanyMatat.