A Work in Progress: Aramark transition raises questions

When employees were transferred to Aramark’s payroll, it raised quite a few questions. Nearly two months later, the campus still hasn’t settled down.

Effective Jan. 1 this year, the college transitioned several departments from its payroll to that of Aramark, a contracted company that the college has been affiliated with for years. Now, Aramark controls four main departments within the Physical Plant: housekeeping, groundskeeping, support and maintenance.

The transition was first formally announced by President Miller in a Nota Bene on Oct. 25, 2016. He stated that the switch would “streamline the decision-making process that has guided the College since its inception.” Wesleyan benefits from the transition through a decrease in expenses and reduction in employee-related risk.

After this announcement, rumors and worries abounded —Would workers be laid off? Would salaries be cut? And what about employee benefits? VWC, which prides itself on a familial atmosphere and tight-knit community, was in turmoil.

Nearly two months after the transition, people are still worried and stressed. Reports of dissatisfaction started circulating about unrecognized vacation time, 401(k) eliminations and healthcare costs increasing exponentially.

I want to ensure that these people, who have given so much of their lives to this institution, are protected in several different ways.

President Miller
Two employees worked to reassure employees and make the transition as smooth as possible: Bruce Vaughan, Vice President for Facilities and Operations, and Robert Levinsky, Director of Physical Plant Operations.

“We’re trying to take care of our employees as best we can,” Vaughan said. “I empathize, truly, with our folks.”

Both men believed that transparency was needed during the transition and were honest with employees and others about the advantages and disadvantages of the switch.

“There was definitely a lot of angst about [the transition], and I just tried to calm it,” Levinsky said. “You get more out of your employees if they know you care about them.”

One major advantage was the stipulation that all employees had to be guaranteed their positions for one year, starting on Jan. 1, 2017. President Miller himself insisted on the stipulation. The only exception to this was repeated disciplinary problems, which would still serve as grounds for dismissal.

“I want to ensure that these people, who have given so much of their lives to this institution, are protected in several different ways,” Miller said.

He outlined several benefits of the transition, which include increased opportunities to shift to higher positions in other Aramark facilities, the possibility of additional personnel to address complaints of understaffing, extended tuition-remission benefits and a 3 percent salary increase.

“We’re convinced it’s good for the college and it’ll be good for the workforce, as well,” Miller said.

Despite this, there are disadvantages as well. The two most prominent are the health care fees and allocation of vacation time.

“Healthcare is a sticky issue,” Vaughan said. “The college is very generous…Aramark does not cover on the same level as that.”

Whereas VWC offered a broad spectrum of health services at a blanket price, Aramark offers employees a tiered system of healthcare depending on how much they want to pay. Therein lies the discrepancy: money. The amount of healthcare employees got for $50 from Wesleyan, for example, may cost over $100 under Aramark. For some employees, this is a significant price jump.

“Not knowing what they had here at the college for health insurance, they may have gone from a Gold standard to a Bronze plan, just to be able to afford it,” Levinsky said.

To exacerbate the monetary issue, employees are also paid monthly by Aramark instead of bi-weekly. The payroll system has also changed from ADP to Kronos, and employees are required to clock out for lunch.

Vacation time was also a source of contention. Employees transferred to Aramark with their tenure, meaning that if they were employed by the College for 10 years, they are treated as 10-year employees of Aramark, as well.  This means that employees are accruing vacation time at the same rate as before.

However, the college paid out the employees’ vacation time before the transition, meaning it gave them the monetary value of their total vacation time. Because of this, all employees started with little to no vacation time accrued when they transitioned to Aramark. In accordance with their paychecks, vacation time is now allocated on a monthly basis.

Moreover, some were shaken by the procedures Aramark requires for all new employees. Among these are extensive background checks and drug tests, two procedures which Virginia Wesleyan College allegedly didn’t impose during its hiring process.

Thus far, no employees have been fired, and only one has resigned. The employee has been confirmed to be Rick Harmon, who had been with the college for several years before hearing about the transition and deciding to leave. Allegedly, he had misgivings about the way Aramark treated employees.

His reservations do not appear to be shared by the majority of the other employees, who have expressed concern but remained in their positions.

“There are some trade-offs,” Vaughan said. “It is going to be exactly the same? No, it’s not. But it’s not a bad business.”

“It is stable for the employees. It’s new,” Levinsky said, acknowledging that the system had flaws, “but stable.”

Mickella Rast