GOLDBLATT: Authorized to audit

The University should audit its contractors and reevaluate its relationship with Aramark

I grew up in central New Jersey in a college town not unlike Charlottesville during a period of intense winter weather. After a series of storms that shut down major thoroughfares in the early ’90s, our local hospital decided to designate several “emergency” teams of physicians, nurses and other medical staff members. In the event of a major weather disturbance, this group would be required to report to work — even if it meant trekking by foot through miles of ice and snow — in order to keep the hospital running and patients cared for when schools, universities and businesses were forced to close. These health workers would sleep at the hospital in spare patient rooms or their offices, if necessary, until roads cleared and normal operations could resume.

My father, a pulmonologist at the hospital, was selected as one of the doctors for this initiative. As a child, I felt proud of what he likely considered an administrative burden. His selection convinced me that his labor was important. I imagined him striding through dimly lit and quiet corridors, stethoscope around his neck, trusted with the hospital’s most essential task: delivering patient care.

I was reminded of this anecdote when I overhead a group of University undergraduates discussing the recent snowstorms, campus closings and delays the bad weather produced. One of the students noted that she had heard that Aramark had put up several food service workers in hotel rooms near campus during the inclement weather to ensure that dining halls could remain open and serving food. This arrangement makes sense to me since eating is, after all, a life-sustaining need that does not disappear when the roads become impassable. As a residential campus that houses many students in dorms without kitchens, the University must find a way to feed this population even when its other functions draw to a temporary halt. What the University and Aramark’s actions suggest, then, is that the people who prepare food every day on this campus perform an essential task. For me, this means that we owe a debt of gratitude and respect that is equal in scale to my father’s ability to heal.

The University, though, does not treat this group of workers like it treats its doctors. In 2012 the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization in Washington D.C., estimated that an individual would need to make at least $13.03 per hour and receive employee-funded benefits in order to have even the chance of living in Charlottesville without relying on public assistance. That number is likely somewhat higher now. Despite this calculation and the recent cuts to food stamps which all but guarantee that low-wage workers will live in food-insecure homes, the University’s base wage is only $11.53 per hour. What’s worse is that, according to the Living Wage Campaign, the University refuses to audit their contractors, including Aramark, in order to determine how many people these companies employ on Grounds every day, what contractors pay and whether or not contracted employees receive benefits.

Like the putative “three wise monkeys,” in the face of Charlottesville’s staggering 27.3 percent poverty rate, the largest employer in central Virginia claims to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. When asked in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article if the University had the right to audit its contractors, which it does, the University’s senior director of media relations McGregor McCance said that he did not know. Speak no evil, indeed. Is this how a flagship state University tasked with the mandate to serve the public good treats essential staff? Does it serve the public good for our caring community to shift the burden of its low wages to Virginia taxpayers and the city of Charlottesville, in particular?

Aramark’s contracts are up for renegotiation this spring. From documents the Living Wage Campaign received through the Freedom of Information Act last year, we know that the University has considered removing the auditing clause from all contracts when they do so. It’s not enough for them to put their heads in the sand when asked a difficult question: they want to formalize their ignorance. They’re going to get away with it, and with their abysmal labor practices, unless you speak up to prevent them from doing so.

Laura Goldblatt is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University.

Published March 19, 2014 in Opinion

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