About 35 members of the Service Employees International Union marched Tuesday across the campus of Southern Oregon University to show support for 15 food-service workers facing the possibility of losing their status as public employees.
Their employment standing depends on whether the university keeps them as SOU employees or rolls their duties into a 10-year contract it signed last year with Minnesota-based A'viands Food and Services Management.
If SOU decides to cut them loose, the food-service workers would lose their membership in Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System and access to public-employee benefits, said Laure Stockton, SEIU Local 503 organizer in Medford.
A task force was formed in January by SOU and SEIU to negotiate a compromise for the benefit of the workers, but the group has been unable to reach an agreement, said SEIU and university officials.
"I'm still hopeful that we're going to come up with a solution for everyone," said Jay Stephens, SOU director of human resources. "The task force is meeting fairly regularly and bouncing ideas off each other. ... I really hope we are finished very soon."
When SOU put out a request for proposals in April, searching for a food-service provider to replace Sodexo Inc., it gave contractors the option to leave the 15 workers as SOU employees, which was the arrangement under Sodexo, or hire those employees as their own, said Stephens.
A'viands indicated it would hire the employees, Stephens said.
Moving the workers to A'viands would save the university about $105,000 annually, Stephens said in December, based on estimates derived from SOU's operations with Sodexo.
That figure was put forth after SEIU filed a grievance against the university in August demanding it carry out a feasibility study to compare the cost of keeping the employees versus handing them over to A'viands.
Now, SEIU organizers said, the university estimates the move would save $220,000 annually, according to SOU estimates based on its operations with A'viands.
Stephens said he could not confirm that figure, but acknowledged there was a "significant," difference between the two estimates.
Tim Robitz, the university's housing director, was unavailable Tuesday for comment, according to an SOU official in the housing office.
Stockton said SEIU offered SOU a proposal that would cut the workers' schedule back from 12 to nine months out of the year, which added up to about $105,000 in savings for the university, but the proposal was declined.
"We thought that we were giving SOU the savings it was looking for, and everyone was on board, but it appears that there was a miscalculation," Stockton said. "Now we're back to the phase of looking at different ideas."
Stockton said she is hopeful negotiations between SEIU and SOU will lead to a fair outcome for the workers. If that doesn't happen, the union is prepared to file a grievance against SOU that could eventually lead to outside arbitration, she said.
One of the 15 employees, Connie Benham, said she won't be able to afford A'viands health insurance package, estimated to cost a family of three $1,000 a month. That's more than half the monthly wage for most of the employees, she said.
As state employees, the workers pay between $40 and $70 a month for health insurance, receive reduced tuition opportunities for their children at public universities in Oregon, and have union support.
Benham, of Gold Hill, who has been working at SOU for more than five years, said Tuesday she doesn't think she'll see her sixth year there.
"I am pretty sure they are not going to keep us on," said Benham, who did not take part in the protest because she was working in the kitchen at SOU's Stevenson Union.
"They (SOU) just say 'no, no, no.' It's all doom and gloom. Even if A'viands hires us, they aren't going to pay us enough," she said.
University parking enforcement officer Belinda Melendez, an SOU classified employee and SEIU member, wore a purple union shirt over her uniform as she marched with protesters, although her job is not in jeopardy.
"Since our food-service workers are being attacked at the moment ... we're here fighting for them to keep their jobs," said Melendez, 65, of Medford. "We're not angry with anybody, we're just trying to protect people's jobs."
Stockton said SEIU represents about 200 employees at Southern Oregon University. Many of the SEIU members who attended Tuesday's march were not SOU employees.
"Today was the last opportunity to provide some visibility for this important issue before the campus empties out for the summer," said Bob Sexton, who has worked in information technology at SOU for eight years.
Sexton is also a member of SEIU's Oregon University System bargaining team, and helped organize Tuesday's march.
"A good half of these 15 employees have been working at the university for 12, 15 and 20 years," he said. "We're not talking about high-salary jobs here ... to see them shipped off as a resource or commodity would be disgusting."
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Talent. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.