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The Contract and the Controversy: Aramark Comes to Campus, Community Reacts

by, Gabriella DePinho, Editor-in-Chief

As summer months waned on, Manhattan College leadership quietly announced a new 20-year contract with Aramark Higher Education, beginning for the fall 2020 semester, which would manage and centralize the college’s physical plant, dining services and housekeeping services. Affected staff were informed in late June, but thanks to a concerned student, word of the partnership hit social media in early July, prior to the college’s official announcement.

However as the news of the partnership spread, so did word of Aramark’s well-documented history, which has been filled with complaints and lawsuits from colleges and prisons across the country.

Immediately, social media commotion, a resolution, and anxiety ensued. In the end, the anxiety lingers while Aramark has already set foot on campus.

Manhattan College and Aramark’s Partnership
In a letter dated June 22, 2020, affected staff of physical plant and housekeeping services were informed the college would begin a partnership with Aramark “on a range of integrated campus services.” In the letter, Brennan O’Donnell, the college’s president, wrote that Aramark would oversee management of dining services, physical plant operations and maintenance, the campus grounds, energy management and custodial/housekeeping services.

The Quadrangle was not able to confirm if members of dining services were informed in a similar manner.

The announcement of this partnership is not the first time the college has outsourced any of its services. Sodexo has been in charge of most campus housekeeping services since approximately 2005 and dining services has been managed by Gourmet Dining since 2011. However, this new partnership marks the first time physical plant workers will be managed by external leadership.

The following week, in a letter dated June 29, O’Donnell wrote to members of physical plant and housekeeping to inform them that following “significant discussions with members of our senior leadership” the college decided to put the transition of those services on hold. The Quadrangle cannot confirm if staff from dining services received a similar letter.

Residential housekeeping and physical plant staff are entirely separate in management but are both part of Local 153 Office and Professional Employees International Union.

Dining staff is not a part of this union. A representative from Local 153 OPEIU confirmed with The Quadrangle that since the second letter, the union has entered effects bargaining with the college regarding the college’s decision to subcontract the employees.

As students have begun to return to campus, dining services and campus housekeeping formerly under Sodexo have already been put under Aramark’s leadership.

A Manhattan College representative confirmed that the residential housekeeping staff is set to transition on September 21. Additionally, the representative confirmed that all but one former Sodexo employee has stayed with the school and that one individual left “due to personal reasons.”

How Word Got Out
The college notified affected staff with less than two months to the original transition dates, some of which went through. This timeline left some upset with the school.

A representative from Local 153 told The Quadrangle that, “it [the deal] was done
very quickly, without all parties being fully informed.” While Manhattan College was within its rights to delay the notice as close to the transition date as it did, the representative said this decision was “something that should have been put on the table a year ago.”

Additionally, according to a physical plant employee, some staff received their letters early, getting them the day before Father’s Day.

Kevin Ahern, an associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College with a background in labor studies, noted that in Catholic Social Teaching, respecting human dignity is a key value, even in communication.

“Clear, transparent and timely communication with workers about the state of their jobs is a basic requirement of respecting one’s dignity,” he said.

“To respect someone’s dignity, especially in the midst of this economic downturn where people are so anxious about their futures, they deserve to be informed in a timely manner and they deserve to be informed clearly about what’s happening.”

Ahern gave the college the benefit of the doubt that “in the midst of everything going on, maybe communication wasn’t as clear as it could have been in a normal year.”

According to O’Donnell that was the case.

“We did not communicate well,” O’Donnell wrote in a statement to The Quadrangle.

“In-person communication is always best and would have been the preferred method. Unfortunately, COVID upended that option.”

Matthew McManness, , the college’s vice president of finance and chief financial officer, and O’Donnell have since apologized to the staff for the delivery of the notification and O’Donnell confirmed that he has met with staff and “apologized to them for the manner in which they were originally notified.”

Nicholas Jimenez, a 19-year veteran of Manhattan College’s staff, who has spent the last 15 years with the physical plant, attended one of the meetings with the president.

“The president did come out and apologize and said like ‘the way we went about it was totally wrong and communication’ and whatever and some people told him how they felt,” Jimenez said.

“Change is going to happen, we know it’s going to happen, but there’s a right way to go about it and a wrong way.”

While staff grappled with the news and the delivery of it, many students and unaffected employees were made aware of the new partnership well before O’Donnell sent his official announcement to the community on July 13.

Brandon Martinez, a member of the class of 2020 and the son of a physical plant employee, posted news of the contract and information about Aramark Corporation on his personal Instagram account on July 2. He posted the picture of the June 22 letter on his account on July 3. These posts have garnered 303 likes and 248 likes respectively, as well as numerous re-shares.

In a notes app screenshot from his initial post, Martinez wrote, “The Manhattan College student body and the wider Manhattan College community should be alarmed by our College’s intent to enter into an agreement with Aramark as it has a history of RACIST and UNETHICAL MISCONDUCT. Just as alarming is Aramark’s involvement in and support of prison systems that it financially benefits from.”

His post also called upon the college’s Lasallian values.

“Affiliating with a company like ARAMARK goes against the ethical and religious beliefs that we are taught at Manhattan College! Manhattan College emphasizes to the Manhattan College community that as a Lasallian institution concern for SOCIAL JUSTICE IS ONE OF THE CORE VALUES OF THE LASALLIAN TRADITION. Manhattan College must practice what it preaches!”

Martinez then ended the paragraph with the promise that “Pressure will be applied”, and attached five additional screenshots of headlines, campus news articles and other information on Aramark.

His posts sounded an alarm for those who had never heard of the global company before to pay attention.

For the first time, Manhattan College’s physical plant employees will be subcontracted.
CUPPEK PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY

A Crash Course on Aramark’s History

Aramark has its beginnings in the 1930s, starting out with its founding brothers selling peanuts, and now, nearly 100 years later, identifies itself as “the customer service business across food, facilities and uniforms, wherever people work, learn, recover, and play.” With several branches to the corporation, Aramark services a number of educational institutions, hospitals and healthcare facilities, sports and entertainment facilities, as well as business and government services, including a number of prisons.

Aramark advertises numerous services for institutions of higher education and with the new partnership, is in the process of bringing them to campus.

One such service is EverSafe, which was “developed by Aramark in accordance with recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and other leading health organizations,” according to Karen Cutler, the vice president of communications at Aramark.

Some EverSafe practices students can expect to see on campus will include the installation of additional splash guards in dining spaces, new cleaning and disinfecting procedures and introducing new mobile ordering and self pay kiosks, among other things.

While Aramark’s arrival to campus mid-pandemic comes with the promise of cleanliness and safety, Aramark arrives with a long history of complaints as well.

The accusations against Aramark come from a variety of universities and prisons across the country, some of them hitting close to home.

In February 2018, New York University students who dined at Weinstein Passport Dining Hall, which was serviced by Aramark, walked into an insensitive menu of ribs, collard greens, Kool Aid and watermelon flavored water, among other things, that was designed to supposedly celebrate Black History Month.

The incident came a week after a similar menu had been served at a Loyola University Chicago dining hall. Aramark apologized after both incidents and Loyola University Chicago has kept their services.

After a bidding process that began in 2017 due to a campus dining hall failing a New York City Department of Health inspection, NYU decided to cut ties with Aramark in 2019. Concerns around the company’s ties to prisons and the February 2018 incident added pressure to the university to switch companies.

Barnard College, Trinity College Dublin and American University have dumped Aramark in recent years as well. Students from University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Loyola University Chicago, have applied pressure on their schools to cut ties with the corporation. Petitions to cut ties with Aramark exist for other schools, such as Boston College and the University of Rochester.

These colleges and universities have cut ties or are facing pressure for a number of reasons: poor food quality, unethical employee terminations, and social justice causes.

The Westchester County Jail’s cafeteria is serviced by Aramark as well and in recent years has received a number of complaints. In 2018, an inmate filed a federal complaint on behalf of himself and five other inmates claiming they were served “rotted, stale, under cooked, molded, unsanitary, cold foods.” That same year, some inmates allegedly boycotted the food for the same or similar reasons.

Over the course of many years, Aramark has been at the center of numerous complaints in prisons, with issues of maggots found in food, prisoners being served food that had been nibbled on by rodents, employees smuggling in contraband and employees engaging in workplace sexual misconduct.

While Aramark has faced numerous problems with its prison operations, it also strives to provide opportunities for inmates with a program called IN2WORK.

“We are actually part of the solution with a strong commitment to rehabilitating incarcerated individuals so they can transition back to their communities,” Cutler wrote in a statement.

“We help rehabilitate them through vocational training so they can get jobs upon release. We also provide scholarships so they can get degrees. In many facilities, the incarcerated individuals who work in the kitchen earn money for their trust accounts and/or a reduction in their time served. None of the information being shared online ever mentions our role with these programs and how they reduce recidivism by as much as 30 percent.”

Representatives from both Manhattan College and from Aramark emphasized that the company does not operate private prisons.

“We have become the target of a well-organized campaign questioning our role in providing important food and nutrition for people that are in the justice system,” Cutler wrote. “While we understand and respect the passionate debate around our nation’s prison system and its disproportionate impact on black and other nonwhite populations, we disagree with how Aramark is being characterized and cast as part of the problem.”

Ahern also noted that Aramark is part of the Fair Food Program, which was launched by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “and is trying to make sure that at least certain produce in the supply chain is produced in an ethical way and employees on the fields are paid a living wage.”

Activism on Social Media and Beyond

As this information regarding Aramark’s history poured out through Martinez’s posts, the anonymous Instagram page @LetsTalkAboutItMC started sharing information, as did Guelybell Capellan ’15 ’19, a former full-time physical plant employee and Manhattan College grad.

Capellan created a six minute video discussing Aramark’s history and her concern with the school’s decision to partner with Aramark, which was shared on her personal account and re-shared to other public Instagram accounts.

Capellan posted her video on July 6, the same day the newly formed Diversity Council sent an email to the student body announcing and sharing its mission statement. Within the paragraphs of the email, the Diversity Council quietly addressed growing concerns with Aramark.

The Diversity Council steering committee wrote that they would be “remiss” in their message if they “did not acknowledge that the impending announcement of our partnership with the Aramark Corporation has raised some concerns among members of our community.” The council promised they were “aware of these concerns and have been addressing them in discussions with Aramark’s Diversity and Inclusion and leadership teams” and promised that discussions would continue “not only during the transition, but throughout our partnership with them.”

A college representative confirmed a virtual panel will occur on Sept. 16 at noon with both college and Aramark leaders participating.

While Martinez’s post and Capellan’s video spread throughout the online Jasper community, so did a miniature wave of activism. These posts, though informative, could not necessarily lead to change just by existing.

Some students felt compelled to email Manhattan College leadership. The account administrators of @LetsTalkAboutItMC created a short link which opened a student’s email application with a new draft that would be sent to the president’s office and McManness’ inbox, as well as to the provost’s office, Brother Daniel Gardner, Richard Satterlee, the vice president of student life and Rob Walsh, the senior advisor for strategic partnership. Students were encouraged to draft unique emails.

One student, in an Instagram story re-shared by @LetsTalkAboutItMC, emailed her dorm building’s housekeeping staff to show support and encouraged others to do the
same.

Martinez co-authored a resolution with Kerry Cavenagh ’20 to be presented in front of the Student Government Assembly. The resolution, shared on July 10, calls for Manhattan College to cut ties with Aramark, citing a number of concerns, both about the company’s history and the campus-oriented effects.

“In times like these, we’re smart enough,” Martinez said of the resolution. “We have the access to knowledge, we have the access to information and we’ve seen that side of justice. This resolution might not be pushed, they [the college] might say, ‘whatever, we’re going to side with Aramark,’ but that doesn’t mean we’re going to give up.”

The resolution has garnered 641 signatures from current students, alumni, current faculty and staff, and campus organizations, as well as students and alumni from other
institutions of higher education. Though the assembly held some meetings this summer, the petition has not yet been voted upon.

Ahern even suggested that students could take it a step further.

“We can’t necessarily change [Aramark], we can put pressure on and ask Aramark to change its policies and relationships and its role in the private prison complex but we really don’t have that big of a voice there,” he said. “Where we do have a voice is that we can demand through a resolution of the college senate that anyone who works on campus, even if it’s through a private contractor should get these rights and should get these benefits. That’s a very clear and achievable goal that is not a huge cost for the college, in a way that other things might be.”

Capellan was a student at Manhattan College while students were protesting the naming of the Kelly Commons. She is afraid to see history repeat itself in student voices being ignored when it comes to Aramark.

“It does feel a little like history is repeating itself, but I will say it does feel like this protest is much bigger than what I’ve seen in the past at the school,” Capellan said. “We know now how to make a bigger fuss.”

What Does This Mean For Affected Employees?

While concerned parties have raised the flag about Aramark’s ethics, they have also raised questions about what this new partnership and decision to subcontract means for the college’s employees and the benefits those employees receive.

Working at a college or university comes with an attractive benefit that faculty and staff cannot get elsewhere: tuition reimbursement. Tuition reimbursement is applicable for the individual employee, as well as their children.

“Traditionally colleges have been stepping stones for the middle class for the workers,” Ahern said. “That is something colleges should be very proud of: that through tuition remission, they [the workers] themselves or their families have been able to climb social mobility ladders.”

This plays out in real time as employees may pass up on better-paying opportunities for their children’s chance at a paid-for college degree.

“We don’t get paid the greatest there but we sacrifice that for our families in the future,” Jimenez said. “Somebody like me is a good example. My kids are only nine and three. I’m sacrificing this pay so my kids can go to school for free but that means I’m sacrificing another 10 years just for my oldest. I’m really sacrificing another 15, 16 years. How do I know I’m still going to be there with this company?

“A lot of these people just want to work and get their families through.”

Transitioning to a subcontracted position left many concerned about the state of the tuition reimbursement benefit. The college has promised that employees would still see this benefit, specifically identifying the members of Local 153. However, The Quadrangle has not been able to confirm whether or not Aramark has signed any paperwork to ensure that.

Some also share the concern that the benefit is guaranteed for now, not forever and not necessarily for all future new hires.

“Now what they’re saying is that the tuition reimbursement will still be guaranteed in the contract between Aramark and Manhattan College employees but what they’re not saying is if Manhattan College has two or three years left with the physical plant and housekeeping workers, after those two or three years once that contract is up, what’s going to happen after that?,” Martinez said. “Are the employees still going to get tuition reimbursement? Are some employees going to get fired because Aramark is now going to bring in some of their employees and put their people in?”

Capellan feels that the decision to partner with Aramark, given the company’s history
and the new uncertainty around the benefits, undermines the hard work of the employees.

“This shows them that all their sacrifices to give their families a better life, to give their kids an education, the education that a lot of them couldn’t get, now they’re being told basically that none of that matters,” she said.

Tuition reimbursement also benefits the school, according to Ahern.

“I think the whole idea of tuition remission really benefits the college because it really strengthens the community so if you’re a staff person and you know that your child is going to go to this institution, the way that you clean the bathroom or the way you fix something or the way you prepare food will actually be better, just even subconsciously, so it strengthens the community to have benefits like that,” he said.

So How Did MC Get Here?

Concerned parties like Martinez, Capellan, and Jimenez wondered how the college decided to contract with a company like Aramark.

“The president [of the college] keeps saying they had groups of people doing extensive research. He has yet to release who did the research,” Capellan said.

Jimenez, who noted that the majority of affected employees are minorities, said that he
and his coworkers did their research on the company.

“We’re regular people,” he said. “You’ve got people who basically came to this country, 35, 40 years ago and came straight to this job. They don’t know anything but this job and they can even go online and see how bad this company is. So you’re telling me that in your position with the access you have, the resources you have that you didn’t notice any of this stuff?”

Martinez did research with his parents as well.

“We looked up Aramark and within minutes maybe, we started finding articles of all the negative records,” he said. “It’s not like the stories are being hidden. They’re out there. So it’s kind of shocking to see that Manhattan College is willing to do business with a business like that.”

McManness claimed in an email to The Quadrangle that the decision did not come easily, noting they had meetings with Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark.

“The College developed a comprehensive questionnaire and provided a Request for Proposal to the three leading companies in the U.S.,” McManness wrote. “All companies were extremely capable of providing excellent service to Manhattan College. Our primary purpose was to enhance services in a comprehensive and efficient manner for our students and community. After a thorough review we felt Aramark provided us the opportunity to best meet the primary long-term goals of our strategic plan.”

The college created a longterm strategic plan in 2011, with goals of enhancing student, faculty and staff experience, while also improving the college’s operations, programs and facilities. The college just approved phase three, which encompasses 2020 to 2025, but according to O’Donnell this change in service is tied-in mostly under core goal two
which was “creating a distinctive learning environment.”

“While it’s not explicit, that goal includes everything from ResLife programming to enhancing and building on the success of Arches, to fundraising and responsible management of resources, to making sure that our auxiliary services (all the non-core operations we engage in because we’re a residential college, including facilities, dining, housekeeping, etc.) are run as well–as effectively and efficiently–as possible,” O’Donnell wrote. “Working toward this goal, it became obvious that integrating multiple parts of these business operations would allow us to improve service significantly.”

The emails concerned students and alumni sent did not fall on deaf ears. However, according to O’Donnell, in both his email to the community on July 13 and in an email to The Quadrangle, the college had considered Aramark’s history before deciding to partner with them.

“We also received numerous positive references from among the 500 or so colleges and universities that they serve,” O’Donnell wrote. “No large company is without its failures and faults; the question is do the negatives add up to a pervasive pattern, or are they anomalies. The key, of course, is how they dealt with the faults and failures. Did they take appropriate action to correct? Our questioning satisfied us that they did – and do -take such action.”

Some feel like the decision to look past the notable instances goes against the college’s
Lasallian values.

“One of the core Lasallian principles is respect for all persons and in this deal, there was no respect for the physical plant employees, no respect for the victims of Aramark in prisons and all around the country, there’s no respect for the student and alumni bodies who clearly don’t want this deal to go through,” Capellan said.

The school’s Lasallian values were even called upon in the resolution multiple times.

As students arrive back to campus for a socially-distanced semester, Aramark is just beginning to settle in for a 20-year long haul. Those who oppose the company’s arrival or are concerned about its effects still have the resolution in waiting and still have other avenues of pressure to consider.

However, for some, this is a little deeper than just a company’s ethics, just a college’s decision and just the food you get as the result of your meal swipe. For some, this is about doing right by family.

“I mean, the way I look at it, the Manhattan College family is more than just students, teachers and alumni,” Martinez said. “It goes beyond that. It’s also the workers there, the people who come early in the morning to prepare us food until 10, 11o’clock at night. It’s not just the students and faculties, it’s more than that.

“We all take ethics classes in whatever major that we choose. They teach us with specific cases of big companies trying to do shady business and why this is unethical and we see examples of people rising up and fighting against it. If it wasn’t me [speaking out], it was going to be somebody else.”

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