With a new long-term food service contract in the works at Southern Oregon University, the future is "up in the air" for a dozen employees of Pathway Enterprises Inc., whose mostly mentally or physically disabled staff has been working behind the scenes in SOU's main kitchen for the past 15 years, a director from the organization said.

With a new long-term food service contract in the works at Southern Oregon University, the future is "up in the air" for a dozen employees of Pathway Enterprises Inc., whose mostly mentally or physically disabled staff has been working behind the scenes in SOU's main kitchen for the past 15 years, a director from the organization said.

"We're all pretty nervous, kind of chomping at our finger nails waiting to see what happens," Medford-based Pathway Enterprises Director Of Contract Services Rick Simpson said.

So far, what Simpson has heard from the university "sounds hopeful," concerning whether the school's likely soon-to-be food service provider Minnesota-based A'viands Food and Services Management will renew a contract with Pathways after current provider Sodexo Inc. is ousted at the end of this month.

Simpson is expecting to speak with representatives with A'viands on Aug. 27, he said. A similar meeting three years ago with representatives from Sodexo Inc. resulted in a $750,000 contract.

Ten of the employees who work in the dish room at SOU's Cascade Complex dining hall cope with mental and/or physical disabilities, and use paychecks they receive working the job to support themselves and live independent lives, Simpson said. A handful of the employees who have more severe impairments live in low-income housing provided by Pathway Enterprises in Medford.

Three-year dishwasher Adam Titus pays his own rent in Ashland with the $9 hourly wage. Titus, 31, graduated from Ashland High School in 1999, and has lived here his entire life, but did not want to share what disability he suffers from.

"I hope I can still have a job here, and they keep our contract," Titus said. "Where will I go?

"They have the right to do it, but I don't see why they would. Why would you want to get rid of these people that work so good?" said Titus, who hasn't started looking for another job.

The fact that Pathway Enterprises is doing the work for what it would cost Sodexo — or less — is about the only fiscal incentive the food service provider had for bringing in the disabled workers, but they did, Titus said.

Titus said SOU Housing Director Tim Robitz, who is involved in negotiations with A'viands, informed Pathway Enterprises that A'viands is aware of the Medford organization, and agreed to meet with it.

Representatives from A'viands were not available for comment Friday, a representative from its headquarters in Roseville, Minn., said.

Concerning its possible contract with A'viands, SOU Director Of Interactive Marketing and Media Relations Jim Beaver said the university is "moving ahead as if it were going to be approved."

A'viands will take over on Sept. 1 if a deal is reached, Robitz said. If a contract agreement between it and Pathway Enterprises hasn't been met by then, the dozen employees keeping the dishes shiny at the Cascade Complex dining facility will be unemployed.

There is a wide variety of illnesses and disabilities among the staff, Pathway Enterprises Ashland Area Manager Mike Balliet said.

The Quality Rehabilitation Facility program defined by the state legislature requires state-funded organizations, such as SOU, to seek out and award contracts to Community Rehabilitation Programs such as Pathway Enterprises who can offer competitive bids to provide services that are deemed appropriate for its workers.

Providing all of the dining services at SOU goes beyond the capability of Pathway Enterprises, Simpson said, so the decision of whether to include the competitive community rehabilitation program is left up to the food service provider.

About 30 additional Pathway Enterprises employees work cleaning the residence halls at SOU, Simpson said. That contract, worth about $900,000 annually, will need to be restructured when SOU opens its new residence halls in September 2013.

The Medford organization's workforce is about 75. About 65 of those employees suffer from a disability and work janitorial, dishwashing and other low-level jobs serving a variety of businesses across the Rogue Valley, but losing the SOU contract would be a huge blow, Simpson said.

"The fact of the matter is, lots of people are looking for work, and it's especially difficult to find work if you have any barrier to employment," he said. "We hire a lot of disabled veterans, individuals with mental illness, development disabilities ... this group suffers from a huge array of disabilities that have impacted their lives in an incapacitating way ... they just are not capable of participating in competitive employment."

Rules governing the Quality Rehabilitation Facility program state its goal is to "encourage and assist individuals with disabilities to achieve maximum personal independence through useful and productive gainful employment "… thereby enhancing their dignity and capacity for self-support and minimizing their dependence on welfare and need for costly institutionalization."

"I love it here, it's a good job," Titus said, pulling incoming plates off the rack and placing them in a massive washing machine. "I am just hoping we can stay around."

Balliet, who doesn't have a disability, said having to layoff these 10 employees would be tragic, because, at the moment, "I think work is pretty thin for us," he said, meaning it's likely they wouldn't be relocated within the company.

"It's quite a production," he said, observing the hustling group. "They're a finely oiled machine."

Sodexo, A'viands, Chartwells Catering Services and Aramark Food Services submitted proposals to SOU for a 10-year contract to oversee its food services on campus, university Housing Director Tim Robitz said. He estimates the new deal could generate between $300,000 and $500,000 in profits for SOU annually.

Robitz said A'viands expects that it could generate between $8 million and $15 million of revenue over the contract period, which will include managing a 27,800-square-foot, one-story dining and community hall being constructed along with two new residence halls north of Ashland Street on the east side of SOU's campus.

The organization plans to provide between $1 million and $3 million for capital improvements to campus dining facilities if it is awarded the contract, Robitz said.

As negotiations are ongoing, Robitz said he could not discuss how much the 10-year contract will be worth.

"Hopefully we'll still be around," Simpson said.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.