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UMaine Dining in shambles with Sodexo scandal

It was announced on Nov. 16, 2022, that the University of Maine has partnered with Sodexo for its dining services. The transition will begin Jan. 1, 2023, when all employees, both student and otherwise, will be rehired by Sodexo instead of UMaine. 

UMaine claims that bringing Sodexo onboard will solve a lot of issues and positively affect the dining experience on campus. 

“The University of Maine will become the final public university in the state to partner with Sodexo for campus dining services, increasing healthy local food options for UMaine students, national purchasing power, and economic opportunities for Maine growers and producers,” UMaine announced in a press release. 

However, this decision was made in the midst of increasing allegations and concerns regarding Sodexo including safety, moral and ethical concerns. These concerns, unfortunately, are nothing new for the multinational hospitality company. 

Articles from university newspapers regarding Sodexo and their students’ concerns surrounding the services provided by this company began in 2010, with articles from Denver University’s DU Clarion and Northeastern University’s The Huntington News. 

“Workers don’t have access to adequate sick days and cannot afford to take unpaid days off which exposes students to food transmitted illness,” the DU Clarion said. “Workers have reported supervisors mixing old expired food with new food, and being pressured to use expired ingredients. The safety and wellbeing of over 2,100 students on meal plans is at risk and is dependent on the wellbeing of Sodexo workers.” 

This doesn’t allow sick workers to take days off. This leads to a dangerous and unhealthy situation for their coworkers and students they cook for if they aren’t home when they’re sick and can potentially pass on food transmitted illnesses. 

“This multinational corporation made over $1 billion in operating profits last year, but pays cafeteria workers wages as low as $8.27 per hour, according to the Service Employees International Union. On top of this, Sodexo has also been the target of a large class-action lawsuit surrounding wage theft, unsafe working conditions and discrimination,” The Huntington News said. 

Tulane University’s Tulane Hullabaloo newspaper has a 2015 article discussing Sodexo at their university.

“Under the Affordable Care Act, full-time workers, those averaging 30 hours per week, are guaranteed affordable health insurance from large-scale employers. Last year, Sodexo reclassified the 10,000 employees that work in school cafeterias seasonally as ‘part-time’ workers, thereby denying them comprehensive health care coverage,” the 2015 article said. 

Sodexo is a billion dollar company, as seen by their revenue through the years, and yet doesn’t seem to find it reasonable to provide their employees with basic benefits like health-care coverage, even when those employees should legally be given those benefits. 

Employees at Merrimack College have rallied against their poverty wages that leave them struggling to afford basic necessities. While this could be chalked up to capitalism, it is relevant to consider how Sodexo has also been the target of a large class action law suit surrounding wage theft, unsafe working conditions and discrimination. 

Along with all of these controversies, Sodexo also operates and provides food to prisons. 

“We operate prisons only in democratic countries that do not have the death penalty, where the ultimate goal of incarceration is prisoner rehabilitation and where its staff are not required to carry arms. We adapt our services to national laws and cultures,” Sodexo’s website says. 

In what seems to be an increasing problem, we can’t always trust what Sodexo claims about themselves. The BBC has written several news articles over the years about Sodexo’s prison system. 

“Up until 2001, Sodexo owned one of the largest stakes in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a company that now controls nearly half of the private prisons in the United States,” a Saint Peter’s Tribune article said. 

Six universities dropped their contracts with the company after their ties with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was made public. Continual pressure from activists led Sodexo to sell its shares in CCA. 

Several BBC articles have shared some of the on-site problems with a prison in Northumberland. The first of the BBC’s concerns about safety were in 2015, only two years after the prison went under private control. 

HMP Northumberland’s website claims Sodexo is a positive influence and they’re changing inmates’ lives for the better. 

However, multiple articles and an undercover BBC documentary from 2017 claim a different story. 

“Inspectors, who visited in September, judged the prison on safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement of prisoners. They found the prison ‘not sufficiently good’ in all areas except respect, which was ‘reasonably good,’” a 2015 BBC article said. 

That same report said the prison had recorded 142 violent incidents which included 29 assaults on staff, all in six months. 61% of inmates told inspectors that it was easy to obtain drugs, something that should not be easy in a prison, and the inspection even found that the percentage of inmates testing positive for drugs rose from 17% to almost 30%. 

While inmates are in prison, that doesn’t mean their safety should be forfeited or that they don’t deserve the same basic human rights that people who are not in prison should enjoy. 

Despite claims in that article made by Sodexo that they were taking measures to address these issues, they didn’t seem to care enough to follow through. A 2020 article shares the newest situation within this prison during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, where Sodexo had said they were following the official guidelines. The worst discovery by the inspection is that one disabled prisoner hadn’t been able to shower for seven months because he was unable to get to an accessible bathroom. 

While universities shouldn’t have the same problems as these privately owned prisons, the inability to provide humane living conditions doesn’t add credibility to Sodexo’s name.

A 2020 article from the Tulane Hullabaloo shares concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic for food service Sodexo employees.

“The majority of Tulane’s dining and janitorial … workers’ benefits, including paid emergency leave and sick days, are determined by a joint agreement through Tulane and Sodexo,” the 2020 article said. “The [COVID-19] policy includes full-time and part-time employees and allows for up to 21 work days if they have a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus or are asked to stay home from work due to symptoms … The policy did not address paid emergency leave or layoffs.”

These concerns about employee safety and lack of benefits is a major concern of students and staff at UMaine about the upcoming transition to Sodexo. Jim McCarthy, a current professor in the modern languages and classics department and previous ESL instructor in the English department, voiced some of his concerns about Sodexo. 

“The university, under this and previous administrations, has been privatizing the public sector.  UMaine food services is a public service and the employees and management of that service are public employees who enjoy the benefits of being public employees, including the right to participate in a union, earn a pension, have very good health insurance and an annuity with matching funds from the university,” McCarthy said. “Another very important benefit is that they can take classes for free and their children can attend UMaine at a 50% discount. All of that is now in jeopardy.” 

Unlike other major decisions such as the issues surrounding Maine Day, UMaine is taking concerns like this into consideration and looking for student and community input. 

It’s not out of the realm of possibility to overturn this decision. Administration is actively looking for student and staff input in this decision. The fact that they are accepting outside opinions seems like a step in the right direction given their recent lack of transparency around decisions for students and staff. 

In the most recent town hall meeting, Kelly Sparks, the vice president for finance and administration, mentioned the Sodexo decision. 

We are exploring dining services with Sodexo. We are looking forward to continuing to serve our students in a high-quality way, but being able to expand … through a partnership with Sodexo,” Sparks said. “We’re just starting to talk through what it looks like, and we would like to invite you to participate in this conversation.”

In addition to Sparks, Margaret Nagle, the interim executive director of communications for UMaine and the UMaine system and the senior director of public relations in the division of marketing and communications, urges students to voice their opinion about this decision before it’s finalized next semester. 

“UMaine’s partnership with Sodexo will be shaped with broad campus community input … The transition will be a collaborative process that will involve negotiations with each of the impacted bargaining units,” Nagle said. 

Students shouldn’t waste this opportunity to make their voices heard about this controversial decision that likely has unsafe consequences for our university. 

There will be multiple discussion opportunities for any student to attend if they want to. Any student who has the ability to attend one of these should do so and voice their concerns about this decision to bring Sodexo on board. This link will take you to a registration form where you can sign up for these sessions. 

Comparatively, UMaine is late onto the Sodexo bandwagon, seeing as other universities have been dealing with concerns about the company for over a decade. Despite their established track record, there has been an increase of articles and studies about Sodexo in the past couple years. 

This includes articles from newspapers previously mentioned as well as West Virginia University’s The DA, Loyola University’s The Maroon, Stony Brook University’s The Statesmen, Illinois Wesleyan University’s The Argus, University of Southern Maine’s Free Press and the Los Angeles Loyolan

All of them talk about the problems and scandals circulating about Sodexo. 

Every student must make their voices heard to make sure this doesn’t happen to our university. Join one of the focus groups, share your concerns and make sure UMaine knows this isn’t a decision that is endorsed by the student body. 

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