A compromise has been reached between Southern Oregon University and the Service Employees International Union over whether 15 union-represented food service workers would remain public employees at the school.

A compromise has been reached between Southern Oregon University and the Service Employees International Union over whether 15 union-represented food service workers would remain public employees at the school.

But the outcome of the negotiations has led to a union grievance and some unhappy workers.

"I really thought that we were going to come up with a nice compromise, but I'm sorry, this is not a compromise," said 56-year-old Cheryl Ramirez, a 16-year SOU employee who was handed a layoff notice earlier this month along with 11 others.

Three who were a few years from retirement were retained by SOU in their original positions. Ramirez and several others with seniority were given the option of filling other open positions at SOU for which they qualify or "bumping" a lower-ranking classified employee and taking his position, said Jay Stephens, SOU director of human resources. Ramirez will be working in admissions.

The rest were left with two options: walk away or work for Minnesota-based A'viands Food and Services Management, which signed a 10-year contract with SOU over a year ago to manage its dining services, Stephens said.

"I understand it was a difficult process," Stephens said. "Essentially everybody had an opportunity to keep their job or a job ... the idea was to make sure everybody had a job."

Although the opposite has been suggested by some of the employees and union representatives involved, "it certainly wasn't a push by the university for anyone to lose their job," Stephens said.

A handful had enough seniority and experience to retain their status as public employees in other positions at the school, said Danielle Wechselberger, SEIU Local 084 president at SOU, but most of them went to A'viands.

The food-service workers who made the jump to A'viands lost their membership in Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System and access to public-employee benefits. But A'viands agreed to fully subsidize their costs for the company's health insurance plan for as long as they work there.

Though the collective bargaining agreement between SEIU and the Oregon University System requires contractors such as A'viands to retain former public employees for only six months, A'viands agreed to nine months, Stephens said.

Ramirez said there is a clause in the agreement that allows A'viands to terminate any employee at any time for "just cause."

"What does that mean?" Ramirez asked. "Going to A'viands, there is nothing good about it."

The new A'viands employees also will not receive reduced tuition rates at Oregon public universities, which they enjoyed as public employees, because is is not possible legally, Stephens said.

"I am very disappointed with the way that this was handled on the administration side," Wechselberger said. "I feel like that they (the employees) were not treated the way they deserve to be treated after all the years they dedicated to the college. ... When you've given 15 or 16 years of your life to something, it feels like you are being thrown away."

A task force formed in January to reach a compromise included university administration, SEIU representatives and classified employees, and it began positively, said Ramirez, who was involved in negotiations. But things began to deteriorate as the school year wore on.

The biggest blow to the group's confidence came when SOU mistakenly estimated that moving the workers to A'viands would save the school about $105,000 annually. SEIU was challenged to find a way to match that savings, which it did by offering a proposal that would cut the workers' schedule back from 12 to nine months out of the year.

All of the workers were onboard, but once that proposal was received, SOU realized it had miscalculated. The actual savings that needed to be met was $220,000 annually, and the proposal was rejected.

"How can we save that amount of money?" Ramirez said. "We can't, they just don't want us ... they want to bust the union."

Wechselberger wouldn't go that far, but she doesn't like the trend she is seeing across the state and nation.

"I feel like it has opened a door that is going to be hard to close. Contracting out does not save money in the long run," Wechselberger said. "Unfortunately, SOU is looking for shortcuts to fix this budget crisis, and I don't think it should be done on the backs of our lowest-paid workers."

SEIU filed a grievance against SOU at the beginning of the year, but it was put on hold pending the outcome of negotiations. It has been reactivated and may lead to outside arbitration, Wechselberger said.

Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at samuelcwheeler@gmail.com.