Bon Appétit Management Company, a subsidiary of Compass Group USA, has made a name for itself as a fair-trade food service and advocate for farmers’ rights. Some of its Emory employees, however, paint a less positive picture of the company.

Nearly a year ago, Emory University selected Bon Appétit to replace its then-food service contractor Sodexo, which faced Emory student protests based on alleged human rights abuses in 2011, as well as similar protests at other client schools, including at Northwestern University early this year.

While some regarded the University’s food service swap as a triumph for workers’ rights, dining employees campus-wide beg to differ. Through dozens of interviews with food service employees across campus, the Wheel heard multiple accusations of Bon Appétit’s placing its business interests above the needs of its workers.

EMPLOYEES DENIED SHIFT HOURS, EARN SAME HOURLY WAGE

Eleven employees emphasized the financial stress they’ve endured under the new management as a result of the company’s reducing and limiting the hours their employees work — while their hourly wages, the majority of which were $12.08 or $12.39 per hour, remained unchanged. (Bon Appétit’s hourly workers’ wages start at $12.08 hourly, the University’s minimum wage, according to Senior Director of Emory Dining Dave Furhman.)

Under Sodexo, lower-level employees could earn overtime payments of 1.5 times their regular hourly wage if they worked more than 40 hours in one week, as mandated by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

“With Sodexo we got 40 hours [and] overtime,” one Cox Hall deli worker, whose hours were reduced from 40 to 32 per week, said. “With Bon Appétit you can’t work 40 hours… We were promised more than that [by management].”

She added that most employees are allowed to work six or seven hours daily, rather than the usual eight-hour workday. A cook at Cox Hall was more frank:

“They cut you off at 37 or 38 hours—they make sure nobody works overtime,” he said.

Some hourly workers said that, with most of the staff working less hours, the number of employees working at a given time had decreased, leaving the same amount of work to fewer workers.

“It’s less staff working at one time, so we have to do double the work,” a Cox supervisor said. “They haven’t hired too many [new] people.”

The company said it has been working toward finding the optimal number of staff, and had hired new employees who weren’t former Sodexo workers, laid off six of them and rehired three of those six over the course of the year.

All but several of the employees, one of whom was satisfied with the company’s management and others who served in management positions, quoted in this article asked that the Wheel protect their identity for fear of repercussions in the workplace. A month into the Wheel’s reporting, these managers declined to comment, preferring to speak through a Bon Appétit communications representative.

As for the company’s reasoning for strict overtime policy, Bon Appétit’s salaried managers often cited cost efficiency.

“We don’t allow overtime of any fashion,” Barris Foust, an assistant manager at the Dobbs Market, said in an interview with the Wheel. “We are stewards over Emory’s money, not Bon Appétit’s.”

He added that the contractor has “two major expenses: food and service,” and that the latter had been adjusted at the beginning of this semester by way of cuts to the number of hours that the hourly workers normally worked.

Employees said they saw cuts to their hours across the board. According to Foust, managers were ordered to cut 1,200 hours collectively at the beginning of the semester. Several staff members from Cox confirmed that they had heard of this target, though about 600 of those hours were to be cut specifically from Bon Appétit’s campus catering service, they said. The company and Furhman deny that there was any specific target for overall reductions in employees’ hours. Still, Foust and several other employees said the opposite.

Foust added that, while some former Sodexo employees got to keep their full 40 hours during the previous and current semesters, “if there’s no need for them to have 40 hours, that’ll get changed [by the company’s management and human resources].”

Employees can work overtime only in special cases of emergency shift coverage, such as when another employee is fired or can’t come to work, Foust said.

The company tries to give its full-time employees 40 hours per week, but must also focus on “balancing the needs of our business,” according to Bon Appétit Communications Director Bonnie Powell. She added that those who don’t follow time-clock policies — namely, strict rules against overtime, without a manager’s approval — face “disciplinary action,” such as a write-up, which may reduce the number of hours an employee can work when schedules are changed.

Cox General Manager Julie Mulisano, who began working on campus after Bon Appétit became Emory’s food service contractor last spring, attributed the lack of overtime allowance to cost-cutting while also working to provide staff with “a sustainable lifestyle.”

“It is more expensive to run a fresh food program,” she said, when asked about the company’s strict overtime policy. “We don’t run overtime as a common weekly practice.”

Bon Appétit Resident District Manager Nadeem Siddiqui, whom the Wheel interviewed along with Mulisano, agreed.

“You want to run a business with responsibility,” he said. “You want to keep a competitive pricing based on what business is like.”

In addition to no longer having the ability to work overtime, employees said their hours and work locations were shifted on short notice without the company having consulted them beforehand.

Georgia’s Labor Code mandates that “an employee shall be notified about any change in the shift schedule 10 days ahead of time,” with the exception of cases of “extreme business necessity.” Employees maintained that the company announced their new schedules and, for most workers, their reduced hours, by posting them on bulletin board at a Jan. 7 staff orientation meeting — four days before they would begin work.

“They just changed everyone’s schedules without asking,” said the Cox deli employee whose hours dropped from 40 to 32.

One floor worker at Cox Hall who works 32 hours per week last semester said he returned in January to find that he had lost about one-third of his hours.

“I’m a full-time employee, but I’m only working 21 hours per week,” he said, adding that he “stepped up to ask and got it changed.”

An employee at Dobbs Market in a similar situation, who worked 40 hours for Sodexo and has been working on campus for the past three years, lamented the loss of one third of his biweekly paycheck — from $1,200 to $800 — as a result of his reduced hours. He added that he had had to get a second job to stay afloat, and he wasn’t the only one doing so, according to several other employees’ accounts.

When his hours were changed, he told the Wheel, not only had they been reduced, but they also had been shifted from morning to evening after winter break, overlapping with the hours he had worked for his second job.

“I kept telling them I couldn’t work at night because I had another job,” he said, adding that the managers to whom he spoke said his schedule change was due to his lack of seniority. He said that he was permitted to work in the mornings again, after he was forced to quit his second job in order to continue working the hours that Bon Appétit assigned him.

Bon Appétit’s managers “try to accommodate employee preferences and balance their needs whenever possible,” according to Powell. Seniority helps determine who is granted the most hours, Foust said. Consultation of the employees before their shifts are adjusted, however, is “not an everyday thing,” he said.

‘THEY MAKE A LOT OF PROMISES THEY DON’T KEEP’

As Bon Appétit’s tight budgeting has cut into employees’ overtime and general hours, employees told the Wheel that a lack of adequate communication on the side of Bon Appétit’s management led to unexpected financial obstacles. For example, employees and management give different accounts of whether the company’s annual raise policy was made clear.

Bon Appétit gives its employees raises based on hire date, and they must be employed for a full year before their first wage appraisal, according to Mulisano. Still, many workers said they were told otherwise at a late May orientation meeting soon after Bon Appétit’s arrival in last spring.

“Bon Appétit came, said we were going to get a raise in January — now they tell us we’ve got to wait until May,” a Dobbs Market worker said early in the spring semester. Others echoed that they were informed of the annual raise rule at a Jan. 7 orientation meeting. Workers expected income increases of between 20 and 30 cents, in line with their previous annual raises.

Powell maintained that the company informed the employees of its annual wage rule in May, but numerous employees disputed this.

The alleged raise delay came in the face of another financial obstacle for Emory’s food service workers: In 2014, the Georgia State Senate approved the Employment Security and State Government House Bill 714, denying “unemployment benefits to certain workers who are employed by private companies to provide services to educational institutions.” In other words, during summer and winter breaks, they could no longer receive state unemployment pay, a government allotment based on the unemployed person’s previous salary, which ranges from $44 to $330 per week. GA House Representative Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, said HB 714 sought to close a multi-million dollar loophole, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2014.

Emory’s hourly food service employees received unemployment payments during the summer and winter breaks up until the previous summer, when the amendment took effect. Many said they live paycheck-to-paycheck during the spring and fall semesters, and struggled to find employment during the summer.

“What did we do?” said one Cox employee. “Look for another job or be broke.”

Last summer involved special circumstances, according to Powell. Because the company had just arrived on campus, she wrote in an email to the Wheel, “we asked as many of our predecessor’s employees to work as were willing and able to do so, in order to start training and get our systems up and running,” and therefore “had a large number of staff on campus last summer.” As for the coming summer, when the company will be fully established at Emory, Bon Appétit is “evaluating its needs,” according to Powell.

Criticizing the Georgia State Senate’s move, Siddiqui said he thinks “states have to do a better job of looking at seasoned [seasonal] employees.” Still, he added, “there are guidelines you have to follow, laws you have to follow,” and that if employees wanted to work, “they could work — if they don’t, they don’t.”

While Foust, Mulisano and Siddiqui maintained that Bon Appétit’s human resources department helped compensate for the loss of income by assisting employees in their search for summer work, employees disputed this. Foust cited the 17 other companies under Compass Group’s umbrella as work options for the summer. Siddiqui pointed to other Bon Appétit-serviced locations on campus that stay open in the off-semester seasons, such as Starbucks on Oxford Road, as well as Bon Appétit locations in Atlanta, adding that this sort of help was “one of the things our human resources does well.” But the employees themselves reported that, while the company provided help on paper (literally, by posting potential employment options on a bulletin outside of the human resources office), there was little help in practice.

“I found [a summer job] on my own,” one Dobbs Market worker said, adding that the extent of the assistance from human resources was a sheet of potential jobs posted in the office. Others reported similar experiences.

A general lack of communication between management and hourly workers has had repercussions for the latter, according to employees.

“They robbed us of our vacation,” one Cox floor worker said, in reference to a miscommunication that cost many employees a portion of their annual two weeks of paid vacation time. He added — and others confirmed — that with Sodexo, employees could borrow from their annual 80 hours allotted for the next year, or transfer unused hours to the following year. Some employees reported that Bon Appétit told them they needed to use up their vacation hours by the end of the company’s fiscal year on Sept. 30, only to backpedal, later telling them that they could’ve saved it.

With HB 714 barring them from collecting unemployment pay over the winter break, employees without vacation hours faced about three weeks of no income.

Powell attributed the “confusion” to the fact that the company’s fiscal year is based on the Sept. 30 date. According to Mulisano, former Sodexo employees were permitted to roll over their vacation pay, but some former Sodexo workers still were not aware of this when interviewed by the Wheel in January and February.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” a Cox worker, who has worked within Emory dining for more than a decade and earns $12.39 per hour, put it simply.

THE COSTS OF ‘TRANSITION’

When asked about the company’s budget, especially as it may relate to cuts in employees’ weekly hours, neither Powell, who communicated with the Wheel on behalf of the company’s management, nor Furhman agreed to provide information regarding Bon Appétit’s finances.

According to Furhman, Bon Appétit’s labor and food costs, which he said “fluctuate from season to season,” are higher than those of Sodexo. The company has been working to check these costs by cooking smaller batches of food to reduce waste, Furhman wrote in an email to the Wheel. He added that the company saw a recent spike in food purchases, allowing the University to keep meal plan prices consistent.

Mulisano, the general manager at Cox, said that, while cuts in overtime are a necessary way to keep costs of fresh food in check, the company is “always going to be heavy on managers.”

“We open, we bring managers in from everywhere,” she said, echoing employees who noted a spike in the number of managers working simultaneously at each dining location. Bon Appétit hired these additional managers in large numbers and often temporarily as a way “to assist in the transition,” according to Furhman. According to Powell, Bon Appétit hired five managers who worked under Sodexo, promoted two hourly employees to managerial positions, brought in 14 managers from other company locations and hired another 18. They have so far laid off one.

After laying off six newly-hired employees and rehiring three of them, Powell wrote, the company is still working to “find the right balance of giving the people we have on staff enough hours without impacting service, while also being fiscally responsible.” The layoffs were a result of “seasonal or other business needs,” and such layoffs and rehires happen occasionally “as needs continue to change,” she added.

A Cox supervisor said she’s still trying to transition as well — to her new duties, which she described as more like those of a regular employee, limits on her ability to earn overtime, managers’ behavior toward her and her coworkers and the loss of unemployment pay during the breaks.

For spring break, staff spent a day or two cleaning at the start and tail end of the week, according to Powell. All salaried managers continued working, as Bon Appétit held two “culinary training sessions.”

“We’re going to be off for spring break with no pay, they’re just now telling us,” the Cox supervisor said on Feb. 26, expressing her frustration with the fact that the managers will be able to continue working. Co-workers confirmed that the staff were informed of this on the said date, about a week before spring break.

“We never had to go through this with Sodexo,” the supervisor said. “I’m just now getting back on my feet from Christmas break.”

A week after a spring break, she said her situation was becoming increasingly dire: with fewer hours and no way to compensate for her loss of unemployment pay between semesters, the supervisor said, she was behind on her bills and feared her car would soon be repossessed.

“It seems like I will never get back on track,” she said. “I’m looking for another job because I can’t keep living like this.”

Associate Editor Stephen Fowler contributed reporting.