EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the result of a Daily investigation of University Dining Services and Aramark Corp. that began March 2008, compiled through employment data and interviews with current and former employees.
In 2007, University Dining Services experienced a turnover of 469 employees — more than half of the students and teamsters that account for UDS’ staff, according to University records.
This is more than three times the amount of employee terminations in 1998, the first year Aramark Corp. partnered with UDS, according to University records.
Director of UDS Contract Administration Leslie Bowman says recent employee satisfaction surveys show a significantly positive shift toward a happier staff from past years.
But current and former UDS employees and one former Aramark assistant manager say UDS tampers with payroll records to remove pay for hours worked, and that some Aramark and UDS managers create an overtly “hostile” work environment that repels employees.
According to these sources, this hostility includes verbal abuse, targeting perceived “troublemaker” employees and discouraging staff who have sustained on-the-job injuries from seeking immediate medical attention.
“The morale around here is so low, it’s unbelievable,” Gary Strafelda , a 19-year UDS veteran and local 320 Union Steward, said. “That’s the way a lot of us feel: How do these people sleep at night with the way they treat people?”
Manipulation of timecards?
Daniel Revsbeck first became suspicious that UDS, his then-employer, was skimming money off his paychecks in August 2006.
Then it happened again in October.
Revsbeck had been keeping records of each time he clocked in and out of work in a pocket calendar since early January. If he didn’t take an unpaid lunch break, Revsbeck would mark “NL” for “no lunch.”
Each time his personal records disagreed with his paycheck stub, Revsbeck requested records of his payroll from UDS.
On both occasions, Revsbeck discovered 30-minute blocks of time had been removed from multiple dates on which, according to his records, he had not clocked out for an unpaid break.
“I wanted to challenge it,” Revsbeck recalled. “I just thought that it wasn’t fair. In my experience, employees are paid for all hours worked, not for partial hours worked.”
After presenting his case to a manager, Revsbeck said he received compensation for the missing pay both times, neither of which amounted to more than two total hours.
But if Revsbeck had not been keeping meticulous daily records and taken action, would he have ever seen restitution for the discrepancy?
He doesn’t think so.
“I don’t believe they ever would have decided to pay the money,” Revsbeck said. “It’s like you have to hold them accountable. First you have to investigate it yourself. Then you have to discover a discrepancy. Then you have to confront them.”
However, Bowman said if employees follow the system properly, incidents like Revsbeck’s “should not happen.”
“We take payroll and paying our employees very, very seriously, and would absolutely expect employees to get paid for the time they put in,” Bowman said.
According to the UDS Employee Handbook , if an employee works through an unpaid break, they are to record this in an “exception log .” This log documents any deviations from a normal employee schedule.
After managerial approval, the log is faxed to the payroll department as proof that the deviation was authorized, and not a mistake.
However, on one copy of Revsbeck’s payroll records, dated Sept. 15, 2006, a note from Revsbeck’s former manager, Pam Wallace , to UDS Special Accounts Executive in charge of payroll, Debra Morgan , recognizes that he did fill out the exception log, though 90 minutes of pay were still deducted from his check from Aug. 21 to 23.
“Deb, [Revsbeck] had signed the sheet/ no break for these 3 days/ above for CECC/ Thanks Pam,” Wallace wrote.
Morgan said she does not recall the incident.
Bowman said she could not speak to it either, except that it’s against UDS policy to consistently fail to take an unpaid break.
Bowman said she’s aware that some employees have raised concerns regarding their paychecks. She emphasized that UDS is transparent with employee payroll records and not exempt from human error.
“I would not say that we’re infallible,” Bowman said. “If there’s a situation that someone raises a question, we’ll go back and look at it. We have data to support what they did or didn’t do, and we’d correct any situation that needed to be correct.”
An ongoing issue
Morgan and Bowman both said they cannot recall a single incident that an employee has followed the exception log procedure correctly — like Revsbeck — and still had time removed from their paychecks.
But two other UDS employees said the same thing happened to them earlier this year.
One current employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said 20 hours were removed from his paychecks over the course of a month in early 2008.
Similar to Revsbeck, this employee had kept personal records that he found conflicted with his paycheck and requested copies of his payroll records, he said.
As the only person with his position in his work facility, this employee said he works about 50 to 80 hours per week, and rarely is able take a half-hour unpaid break.
After confronting his manager, this employee said UDS added the 20 missing hours to a later paycheck.
Gary Strafelda, a cook in the Coffman Union kitchen, said he had a similar experience in June.
His paycheck stub indicated he worked 77 hours in a two-week period, but he was certain he worked the full 80.
All deviations from his normal schedule were documented and approved by a manager, Strafelda said.
He received compensation for two hours on a later paycheck. Despite his efforts, he has still not received pay for the third hour, he said.
A climate of suspicion
By the time Revsbeck transferred to another department within the University in May 2007, he said there were many others who speculated they were also getting shorted on their paychecks and began keeping their own records of time worked.
“Just in my area there were other people who said that it happened to them, and they started to request printouts as well,” Revsbeck said. “Whether or not they ever confronted it as an issue and requested back pay, I don’t know.
“I’m a little amazed that you have to go through this record keeping just to be sure that you’re getting paid properly,” he said.
In 1997, the University had a self-operated dining service facing financial hardship, with profit losses plummeting more than $1 million annually. It was in dire need of a savior to curb its losses.
In 1998, the University signed a 10-year contract with the Philadelphia-based food industry conglomerate Aramark.
True to their word, within a year Aramark rid the profit loss. However, some University faculty and students were instantly critical of the new prices and service quality that came along with it.
As the next 10 years rolled by, Aramark continued to improve profits.
Earlier this year, Aramark and the University negotiated a new 12-year contract valued at $96 million.
A private company that employs more than 250,000 people internationally — 60 as managers at the University — Aramark raked in more than $12.3 billion in revenue last year and landed the 216 spot on the Fortune 500 list.
Aramark has an extensive repertoire of clients in 19 countries, including universities, prisons and the 2008 Olympic Games.
Aramark Resident District Manager Larry Weger declined to speak for this story, except through e-mailed responses via Aramark’s corporate communications staff, which conflicts with Minnesota Daily policy.
A ‘hostile’ work environment
While the University’s food service profit loss has stayed relatively constant since partnering with Aramark 10 years ago, UDS’ turnover has skyrocketed, according to University records.
The biggest jump in terminations hit in 2000, as the number climbed from 142 to 354, a 149 percent increase, according to University records.
Over the next eight years, terminations staggered but continued to rise, peaking at 469 in 2007, according to University records.
Terminations can include an employee quitting, being fired, transferring to another department within the University or being promoted within UDS.
Many UDS employees, and one former Aramark assistant manager, attribute this turnover in part to what they describe as a “hostile” work environment. Many of these people spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of retaliation from UDS and Aramark.
The former Aramark employee described certain UDS locations as “extremely hostile.” He said before he left there were many current problems stemming from UDS over-projecting their annual profit. When they failed to meet financial goals, management began using “borderline unethical” means of saving money, including purposely understaffing and overworking employees, and manipulating employee timecard records.
This former Aramark employee said he regularly witnessed unethical behavior on the part of UDS managers. He said, in one instance, an employee severely burned himself while on the clock last fall. Though he suffered from visible burns, he was told not to go to the doctor. Instead, he wrapped his wound with gauze and continued working.
“It blistered and peeled,” he said about the burn. “But the position that he was in was so critical to the smooth operation, and nobody else was trained to do that. So if he left, that part of the operation would fail.”
This former Aramark employee also said UDS employees who were vocal about workplace misdeeds were “targeted.” He said he and other Aramark employees were continually told to monitor these perceived “troublemakers.”
“They don’t want to hear the truth,” he said. “Any infraction — either perceived or actual — is completely exploited and blown out of proportion.”
Three other current UDS employees say they have witnessed unethical practices by both UDS and Aramark managers, including racial discrimination, verbally abusing employees to the point of tears in the presence of customers, and encouraging injured employees to not seek medical attention.
In one instance, Strafelda said a pregnant coworker was reprimanded for missing a day of work for a doctor’s appointment.
“They seem to want to bully the employees,” Strafelda said. “They strong-arm employees into doing things they’re not supposed to.”
‘People are happier’
While recognizing that UDS has disgruntled employees, Bowman contested that recent employee survey results show the majority of the UDS workforce is either “satisfied” or “very satisfied,” with a decrease in employees who indicated they are “dissatisfied.”
“Anecdotally, I think people are happier,” she said. “I think we had some rough years, but I think we have a much more stabilized workforce.”
Bowman said an unstable economy and dramatic increase in total UDS employees are explanations for an increase in turnover.
Because UDS vastly cuts its staff and closes many dining centers during the summer, Bowman said it’s become increasingly common for employees to seek work that guarantees year-round employment. In the past two years, she said many people have transferred from UDS to jobs in Facilities Management .
“That reduction of workforce in the summer impacts employees more than it might have several years ago,” Bowman said.
Though Bowman said no hard numbers are readily available to indicate how much the UDS workforce has grown in the past 10 years, she said the staff in 1998 consisted of about 500 to 600 employees. Today, the staff is closer to 700 or 800.
Bowman said she does not think an increase in the number of unhappy employees accounts for a higher turnover rate.
“I don’t see it being a higher level of dissatisfaction from employees now as it was when we were self-operated,” Bowman said.
But some UDS employees blame a managerial focus on the bottom line.
“It can’t be all about the money,” Strafelda said, “and that’s the way it is with this current management staff.”
—Andy Mannix is a senior staff reporter.