[Update – April 29, 4:28 p.m.: On April 29, Cindy Smith was fired from her job at Cook Commons. She was told it was because she got too many “points” from absences and from “insubordination.”]
Cindy Smith sat across from a Sodexo human resources representative and cried.
It was April 19, 17 days after Smith was told she would have a meeting with UVM Sodexo management to see if — and when — she could come back to work.
When Smith was suspended April 2, it was a result of Sodexo’s attendance policy. Implemented in 2012 at Sodexo facilities nationwide, “investigatory leave” is a way to deal with employees work performance, according to the 2013 UVM Sodexo Unit Specific Work Rules.
Since its implementation, Sodexo employees said the policy incentivizes them to remain at work even when sick, in fear of accumulating “occurrences” and losing their jobs.
When the policy started, “occurrences” were referred to as “points,” however the terminology was changed in 2013 to use “occurrences” rather than “points,” according to the work rules.
In her meeting with human resources, Smith said she was finally able to share her side of the story with someone who said they were “on her side.”
There's a lot of shit going down in that kitchen that nobody knows. Cindy Smith, UVM Sodexo employee
Smith’s story is of her and her coworkers being forced to come to work sick, of the stress they experienced, of complaints being ignored. Smith ultimately shared what she saw as health concerns all around her. She and her co-workers have been afraid to tell anyone, she said. UVM and Sodexo officials say these policies are fair and don’t penalize sick employees for leaving work.
“There’s a lot of shit that goes down in that kitchen that nobody knows,” Smith said to the representative.
You've been terminated
Doctors told Sara Bolio, a worker in Cook Commons, that without surgery, she could die. However, because of UVM Sodexo’s attendance policy, Bolio said she was in the “danger zone” of losing her job. If she accumulated one more absence, she would be placed on investigatory leave.
Bolio said her gynecologist diagnosed her with a tubal pregnancy in February 2013, a complication where the fertilized egg develops in the fallopian tubes instead of the uterus, according to the Mayo Clinic.
For weeks, Bolio said she underwent the process of terminating her pregnancy, while still attending work normally, fighting back pain through her shifts.
Then one day she said she woke up in excruciating pain, so much so that her brother had to drive her to the hospital. She was bleeding internally, as the fetus had ruptured one of her fallopian tubes. Doctors told her that if she didn’t admit herself and receive treatment, she would die.
However, she said that she was more afraid of missing a day of work.
“I was told that I was dying and the only thing that I could think of was losing my job. I was bawling and saying, ‘I can’t lose my job,’” Bolio said. “Thats the only thing I could think of. Even when the doctor told me I was bleeding internally, the only thing I could think of was not losing my job.”
Bolio said that she initially refused treatment; however, the morphine she was given for pain knocked her unconscious, so her mother, Deb Ploof, admitted her and made sure she was treated.
Ploof, a supervisor at the Cyber Café at Bailey/Howe library, called UVM Sodexo management and had them place her on protected leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, Bolio said.
If employees can’t come to work as scheduled, they must call and speak with their superior at least one hour prior to their scheduled shift, according to UVM Sodexo’s Attendance Policy. The policy was last updated August 2013.
When employees are terminated because of the attendance policy, it’s mostly due to issues of them not showing up to work and not calling in advance, said UVM Sodexo general manager Melissa Zelazny.
Zelazny said employee reaction to the policy was “overwhelmingly positive,” and provides consistency when compared to policies at other food service jobs.
Workers are retaliated against for using sick time. Avery Pittman, field organizer for the Vermont Workers' Center
“Sodexo treats its workers inconsistently,” Avery Pittman, a Vermont Workers’ Center field organizer said. “Which is pretty terrible because it means favoritism and predatory management and intimidation are common, but workers have vastly different experiences across the board.”
“The point system is patronizing,” she said. “Workers are retaliated against for using their sick time.”
Pittman, a 2012 UVM graduate, said when she was a student it “seemed like workers were still being mistreated and disrespected,” and it seems now “those who’ve worked the longest are starting to get fed up.”
On Smith’s last day work day, April 2, she said she was given permission to leave a half-hour early by unit chef Alex Marko. She was docked .5 points and placed on suspension, she said.
Peter Nobles, a physician assistant, wrote to Zelazny Oct. 24, 2014, stating that Smith was “physically and mentally fit for most any workplace situation” but there are “extraordinary events that are so disturbing for her” that she must “step back, leave work a little bit early if work is done, take a deep breath and regroup.”
Smith, an eight-year UVM Sodexo employee, was formerly a supervisor at the Trinity Campus’ Northside Café. She said her work problems began when she started working at Cook Commons under manager John Brandes.
Smith said Brandes is not a “mean person,” but he communicates with staff in a way that “undermines them until it’s pathetic.”
“They cry, I cry. Sat there and bawled,” she said. “I have never had an anxiety problem, a depression problem, none of that until this year.”
Zelazny declined to allow comment from Brandes. Zelazny said the matter was private because it involves “personnel issues.”
“Our policies and practices include a guarantee of fair treatment process and each case is handled individually,” she said.
Sick of being sick
Employees are afraid of missing work due to the attendance policy and come to work sick to avoid getting a “point,” Smith said.
You have to go in there and be extremely sick before they send you home. Cindy Smith
“You have to go in there and be extremely sick before they send you home,” she said. “I mean you [need to be] pretty much blowing [vomit] on the floor. And we are serving you guys.”
Zelazny said the attendance policy has nothing to do with coming to work sick, as that’s covered by a different policy under food safety and sanitation, where employees aren’t allowed to come to work sick.
“It’s the employee’s responsibility to adhere to that,” she said. “Employees are very dedicated here, they don’t want to miss work or want to put their fellow employees in hardships.”
UVM Sodexo has policies in place to protect both workers and customers from getting sick, including having sanitizer wipes in dining halls and making employees wear gloves, Zelazny said.
“We have much more of an issue of, students are sick, we live in a close community, lots of germs [are] being spread around,” she said.
Bolio described one workday, April 24, 2014, where she was throwing up during her shift. She said she worked six hours then told her supervisor she had to go home.
She left work six hours into her ten hour shift and was docked a point, according to Bolio’s attendance records.
An employee will only receive a point for missing more than half their scheduled shift, according to the most recent rule manual.
“They say that they do not penalize us for being sick. That is complete bull crap, because they do,” Bolio said. “I don’t understand how they can sit there and say, ‘If you are sick we do not want you here,’ but if you’re going to be sick and you’re going to call out, you’re going to get a point for being sick.”
They say that they do not penalize us for being sick. That is complete bull crap, because they do. Sara Bolio, Sodexo employee at Cook Commons
A recent Vermont Department of Health study found “strong evidence” that staying home from work when sick would limit the spread of infectious disease.
However, employees said they feel pressure to work due to poor staffing. Employees in lower income jobs are at a “disproportionate risk” of getting sick because they’re less likely to be able to miss work, the assessment stated.
Zelazny said employees receive “occurrences” on a “case-by-case basis,” and it’s up to the judgment of each unit manager.
Bolio and Smith said it comes down to a choice between financial security and health.
Smith said her $15.50-an-hour salary is “a tough wage to live off of,” and the wage is 80 percent of her income. The rest comes from her boyfriend’s disability checks.
Deb Ploof read a letter to the Vermont Senate Feb. 5, 2014 in support of a bill which would have stopped companies from penalizing the use of sick leave time. The bill passed the Senate Feb. 18, 2014, but on May 5, 2014 failed in the House by 21 votes.
The letter was from one of Ploof’s employees to UVM Sodexo management. In the letter, her employee apologized for missing work due to illness.
“In the future I will try to be sick only on weekends, not to inconvenience my job,” the letter stated. “I would think you would not want me around students with that condition…but I guess I was wrong.”
The letter detailed other accounts of employees coming to work when sick. It described a 63-year-old man with pneumonia throwing up during his shift, cleaning the mess and continuing to work. Ploof also read about two women in their 60s who were penalized after missing four days over two semesters for being sick.
“We also testified at a different hearing later about our policy and how that impacted [employees],” Zelazny said. “So maybe [that’s] her perspective in terms of what happens. We make accommodations about a lot of our staff.”
'I wouldn't eat that'
Smith said that not only would she never serve Sodexo food to her family, as of this year she has “not eaten one dime of the food that goes in and out” of Cook Commons.
“You don’t know when it’s been cooked or prepared, there aren’t any dates or anything,” she said.
Bolio, who often works at Cook Common’s pizza station, said that slices are usually heated and reheated often in flash ovens.
“I refuse to do it that way so I get in trouble, but I refuse to do the flashing,” she said. “I would assume that a student would rather wait a minute or two for fresh pizza that just come out of the oven instead.”
Smith said she has seen chicken frozen for weeks and stacked on top of each other in coolers at Cook Commons. When it’s prepared, it’s often four days in advance, heated, reheated, dipped in sauces and seasonings, and served to students.
“You can put seasoning on something making it taste awesome. You would never know the difference,” Smith said, calling it “common practice” for cooks to reuse food from previous days.
“You go to a restaurant, you are not getting leftovers; at Billings [Cook Commons], they are serving leftovers,” she said. “If you cook it one day, you are cooking it the next. You heat and reheat.”
Smith said dishwashers in Cook Commons often break down and dishes and utensils are not cleaned properly but still used.
In their most recent health inspections eight out of nine UVM dining facilities lost points due to sanitization issues of dishes, utensils, surfaces and equipment, according to Vermont Department of Health records.
Cross-contamination is an issue in dining facilities, Smith said.
I have seen raw chicken with no bag on it on a ladder rack. Cindy Smith
Smith’s cooler, which is supposed to only hold vegetables, was used to also hold raw chicken, she said.
“I have seen raw chicken with no bag on it on a ladder rack,” Smith said. “I told them I don’t want that stuff in my cooler, you’re going to let that raw chicken in there?”
On her first day of classes at UVM, sophomore Emanuella Schinazi, who has a peanut allergy, said she had an allergic reaction from eating Sodexo’s food, causing her to go to the hospital Aug. 26, 2013.
Schinazi said she ate a veggie burger with French fries from the Davis Center.
“I thought it was fine because usually if something has peanut oil in it they have to mark that it’s peanut oil,” she said.
Schinazi said she grew ill and was taken to the hospital. She said that when she arrived she broke out in hives.
Schinazi said when she asked Sodexo employees if they used peanut oil in the food they denied it.
“It is our hope that students would bring this information to Dining Services staff’s attention in a timely way so that they can review the incidents and ensure that their quality standards are being followed,” said Annie Stevens, vice provost of student affairs.’
Zelazny said that there are strict standards that every staff goes through in their food handling training, and that there are specific trainings given to employees on cross contamination and allergens.
In addition, she said that students are encouraged to inform Sodexo of any issues with allergies and that they have a dietitian on campus to assist students with these needs.
“Our staff goes through training and all managers receive additional education,” she said.
Smith, Bolio and Bolio’s husband Justin, a former Cook Commons Sodexo employee, said fried foods in Cook Commons are all prepared in the same deep fryers, everything from shellfish to French fries.
“The truth is, is there possible contamination as far as that? Yes there is,” Sara Bolio said.
Zelazny declined to comment on the alleged contamination in the Cook Commons friers.
Smith said her work station and the kitchen’s only compost bucket were “inches” from the kitchen’s meat slicer.
Bolio also works close to the meat slicer and said the slicer’s location makes contamination from the raw meat possible.
“When [they’re] slicing, his juices from the meat and everything could be going onto the pizza, it’s literally that close,” she said.
Zelazny said that employees are trained in proper safety and sanitation techniques of food slicers and that they are responsible for ensuring food safety.
“I am not aware that this has ever been an issue, but [I will] certainly review,” she said in an email.
Sophomore Kate Leier said that since she started eating UVM’s food, she has developed serious gastrointestinal issues and can’t eat some Sodexo food.
“There have been multiple occasions where I have gotten physically ill after eating, especially the eggs and other food from the Grundle [Harris Millis Dining Hall,]” Leier said. “My doctor thinks that I had a reaction to the preservatives they [Sodexo] use.”
Junior Kevin Bloom said he has had similar issues.
“After spending time on campus I can safely say that my stomach has never worked as well as it used to,” he said. “I have gotten sick countless times from their food and still wince at the idea of consuming their food again.”
I have gotten sick countless times from their food and still wince at the idea of consuming their food again. Kevin Bloom, junior
Students are encouraged to report any issues to UVM Sodexo and they appreciate it when they do, Zelazny said.
“We follow up on every issue and there has been no incidences of food poisoning on campus,” she said.
Stevens said she has not heard about these health issues from food served on campus and UVM’s Student Health Services also has not seen any increase in this type of concern. “Timely information about these types of concerns is critical,” she said.
She said in recent weeks, the UVM Medical Center and Department of Health have been aware of cases of a norovirus in the Chittenden County area, but “have no indication of any foodborne cause of illness on campus.”
The “very contagious” norovirus is the leading cause of disease outbreaks from contaminated food in the U.S. and is spread through close contact with contaminated foods and surfaces, according to the Vermont Department of Health’s assessment of paid sick leave in Vermont. It’s spread through close contact with contaminated foods and surfaces.
Outbreaks can occur anywhere “people gather” where “food is served,” the study reported. The virus can often cause vomiting and diarrhea, sometimes requiring hospitalization, the report stated.
“If students are feeling ill, they are encouraged to seek medical assistance at UVM’s Student Health Services in the DeGoesbriand Building on Pearl Street,” Stevens said.
'With their heads cut off'
Smith said she filed a complaint with the Vermont Department of Health April 6.
Vermont Health Department records show they received a complaint April 6 about “food not being dated, old food being served, temperatures of food not being done [and] no sanitizer solutions being used.”
On days when dining facilities are subject to health inspections Smith said that she’s specifically been told to go into food coolers and “make sure everything is marked with the date.”
Cook Commons received an 82 out of 100 in the resulting April 6 health inspection conducted by Jane Bingham, a public health inspector, according to the report.
A health inspection fails if it earns a score of 70 or lower or if it loses “critical” points in the inspection, according to the Vermont Department of Health. If this happens, the establishment is asked to voluntarily close, according to the report.
“I have found some of the violations from the complaint,” Bingham said in the report. “Food found out of [temperature] was thrown out while I was there.”
However, Bingham didn’t find any unlabeled food and the manager, John Brandes, said he doesn’t hold any food for more than five to seven days, according to Bingham’s report.
The manager said that “an employee was mad” because she was recently being “put on suspension” after working at Cook Commons for about eight years and had said she was going to call the health department with the complaint, Bingham stated in her report.
Zelazny said they usually send out an alert to the managers of all dining locations when health inspections are happening saying, “Hey Jane [Bingham] is on campus.” She elaborated by saying “I mean, we are not scurrying around.”
During inspections, supervisors “run around like their heads are cut off,” Smith said. Bolio said this was because “our managers and our supervisors are making sure everything is labeled.”
“Do units give other units heads up on the health inspector? Yes they do,” Bolio said. “Do we run around with our heads cut off? Yes we do.”
“I would say that’s normal practice when you think anyone’s coming into the building,” Zelazny said.
The last time the Vermont Department of Health inspected UVM’s dining outlets was in November and December of 2014, according to the inspection report.
First-year Noelle Cox said when she ate at Cook Commons April 24, the plate of zucchini and onions she ordered “smelled like manure.”
“I was like maybe it was just me imagining it and I ate it and it tasted like manure,” Cox said. “Then friends verified it tasted like manure.”
Cook Commons health inspection scores rose eight points recently, from a 76 in Nov. 2013 to an 84 in Nov. 2014.
Smith and Bolio said staff are barely trained in health and safety, outside of the annual fall orientation staff receives.
“The only time that I would ever get trained in that would be when we do the quick training for orientation in the fall,” Bolio said. “But if you’re a new hire and you’re coming in halfway through the year, its’ just pretty much about giving you the paperwork, fill it out, sign it and then you’re put right to work.”
“They don’t give you a think to take home look over,” Smith said. “They want your signature right there and then, which is wrong, everything was going so fast.”
The march through campus
Smith met with a group of students who accompanied her to her April 12 meeting with Brandes, her supervisor she said. The meeting is required in the investigatory leave policy.
Senior Jess Fuller, an intern at the Vermont Workers’ Center was one of the students who accompanied Smith.
“I’ve been involved with United Academics and their fights for trying to have a union on campus,” Fuller said. “So really, a united workforce on campus for supporting one another whenever there is some sort of injustice going on… is going to be effective.”
Fuller said the policies benefit “the people making a lot of money.”
Smith was out of work for two-and-a-half weeks when a group of students, faculty and members of the Vermont Workers’ Center marched to the UVM Sodexo Headquarters office at Robinson Hall April 13. The protesters supported Smith, who wanted her personnel file from Zelazny, said first-year Abby Blakeley, another student who met Smith outside Cook Commons April 12.
“[Smith] was getting really stressed out [and] started crying when we were outside of the building,” Blakely said. “It was a small victory that we got her paid for the leave that she deserved, but our ultimate goal was to not only get her reinstated, but also to eliminate the point system overall.”
Four students stood on a bench and held posters during a rally outside Bailey/Howe Library April 24.
Alongside local activists, UVM students and faculty marched to Waterman with a petition that had over 1,000 signatures on it for Cindy Smith, Sodexo employee.
“Why don’t you stop looking at our goddamn buildings and start asking about how we uphold our common ground that we so desperately cherish? ” Fuller said. “How about you ask where our tuition dollars are going because I know they’re not going to the hard workers that keep my community functioning?”
Following the speeches, including one from Ploof, the group of protesters walked to the Waterman Building to hand a petition with over 1,000 signatures to the executive offices, Fuller said.
Why don’t you stop looking at our goddamn buildings and start asking about how we uphold our common ground that we so desperately cherish? Jess Fuller