Workers hang in the balance
Catering firm's rule threatens livelihoods of longtime servers
Sophie Welcer can safely balance five dinner plates on a large oval tray hefted over her shoulder, then carry it across a football field-sized banquet room to seated guests at the Oregon Convention Center.
For 44 years, the 78-year-old has served catered meals to Portland convention attendees and other visitors to the city.
Now Welcer's livelihood - and that of many coworkers - is in jeopardy because they can't carry 10 dinners at a time. Many of them are women who are the sole breadwinners for their families, and stand to lose work paying $20 an hour plus benefits.
Aramark, a Philadelphia-based company hired to provide meals at the publicly owned convention center, says it's simply trying to upgrade its service quality. The upgrade comes as Metro, which owns the convention center, seeks to beef up the quality of the food it offers and lure more conventions to town.
But Welcer and other veteran banquet servers accuse Aramark of sex and age discrimination. In 2009, according to several of the servers, Aramark brought in a new catering manager who started hiring a lot more men, many of them younger than the women servers.
'He said that he was going to get rid of the old ladies,' says Darla Jensen, one of the servers. 'He thought it would better the place in terms of service.'
Jensen says the catering manager confided in her and repeated the 'old ladies' remark 'many many times.'
A roster of the 89 Aramark servers, including their date of hires, confirms that a majority of new hires during the past two years have been men. Before the hiring spree, women constituted a large majority of the servers.
Then last month, Aramark imposed a rule requiring its banquet servers to be able to carry 10 dinner plates at a time. Servers were forced to sign a form verifying they can carry 10 dinners and, if not, accept a loss of seniority and fewer work assignments, or accept incentives to take early retirement.
Fewer hours can jeopardize workers' health and retirement benefits, which are offered, under a union contract, to many of the servers.
Welcer and other veteran servers say they can't safely carry 10 dinner plates, especially in the Portland Ballroom, which can seat more than 3,000 people and forces them to walk more than a block to serve patrons at some dinners.
'I can't carry the 10; I can do everything else but that,' Welcer says.
After the new catering manager arrived in 2009, Aramark banned the use of wheeled carts to bring dinners to guests and bring dirty dishes to the kitchen. Those carried up to 30 dinners, The new manager also banned servers from tending to tables in teams of two or more.
'They want the ambiance of a 6-foot-tall man walking across the room with a tray of food,' says Judy Roberts, a server for the past 18 years.
Company stays mum
A call to the Aramark catering manager went unanswered. His boss, Aramark General Manager Brendan Coffey, says the catering manager can't speak to the media and neither can Coffey, under corporate policy. He referred calls to a media spokesman from Aramark headquarters, who declined to discuss the workers' discrimination complaints.
'We're not going to comment on any allegations or charges of this nature,' says David Freireich. The company is simply 'enforcing a service standard,' Freireich says. 'I can't get into the specifics.'
Aramark has a minority partner in the convention center contract, Giacometti Partners, owned by two of Portland's prominent black businessmen, Roy Jay and Bernie Foster.
Jay says Aramark manages the food service and Giacometti's role is limited. However, he knows some of the affected employees personally, and says he hopes to bring up the issue at a board meeting next month.
'You always have to take care of the people at the bottom, because otherwise there is no profit,' Jay says. 'I'm optimistic that if we bring everyone to the table, we can definitely get this thing done.'
Aramark was at the table with Local 9 of Unite Here, the union representing 177 servers, bartenders and other staff at the convention center. After three sessions designed to hash out new work rules, Aramark abruptly declared an impasse and unilaterally imposed the new work rule, says Shellea Allen, Local 9 organizer and union representative.
She filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board in Portland, which has started to gather evidence to see if the case has merit.
Freireich declined to discuss the NLRB filing.
Food as selling point
Hard times have crimped business travel and convention business around the country.
The Oregon Convention Center is trying to get a leg up on the competition with a more upscale food service, says Teri Dresler, general manager of visitor venues for Metro, which includes the convention center. Metro signed a new contract with Aramark in fall 2009, when the parties agreed to 'rebrand' the food service with a new name, Pacific Wild Catering, and higher quality food.
'We just wanted to up the game in the food we were offering,' Dresler says.
The idea was 'to set us apart' from the traditional mass-food service, she says. A new chef was hired. New menus were rolled out. Aramark started serving more locally derived foods billed as more sustainably produced.
Dresler is very pleased with Aramark's work, calling it an 'excellent contractor.' However, there was nothing in the new contract spelling out any changed expectations in service delivery, Dresler says. 'We really don't get involved with contractors at that level.'
Allen, the Unite Here union representative, conceded that carrying 10 dinners has become an industry standard in fine dining. However, the massive Portland Ballroom is different, requiring walks of a 'city block,' she says. Servers say it's the second-largest banquet venue in the Northwest.
'Even the men there that are young have a problem carrying 10 in this huge ballroom,' Jensen says.
And some of the newly hired young men can be seen texting on their cell phones while people are at the table eating, she says. Pointing to Sophie, Jensen says, 'She works harder than these young teenagers that he's hired.'
Robert Brown says he can safely carry eight or maybe nine dinners at a time.
'I have never had a customer complain that the food is cold because I made two trips,' he says.
Balancing the tray atop one's shoulder puts a lot of strain on the wrist, Brown says, and can be challenging while walking long distances.
'I've had chicken curry spill all over me when we had white shirts,' Brown says. 'Let's just say I stood out.'
'You have to be in pretty good shape to work there,' says server Barbara Guardino. 'You're pushing, you're pulling, you're carrying, you're hauling.'
Roberts says she formerly carried 10 plates at a time, but reduced her maximum load to eight dinners because it caused back aches and other muscle strain.
Laura Williams, 46, a server who is on leave to work for the union, says two servers can work together to serve a banquet table and not cost the company any more in manpower, but Aramark won't allow it any more.
Welcer can still work buffets at the convention center and other events that don't require dinner table service. But she expects her earnings to fall more than a quarter. She lives on her earnings, plus a $540 monthly Social Security check and a $480 pension from her years at the phone company. That helps her support her youngest son and help pay his college tuition, and tuition for one of her grandchildren.
If the National Labor Relations Board rules in favor of the union in a case like this, says Linda Davidson, the agency's officer in charge in Portland, the typical order would be to return to the status quo before the unilateral change was made by the employer. However, NLRB rulings can take a long time.
METRO RESPONDS TO ARAMARK ISSUE
On Friday, Oct. 28, Metro's Teri Dresler sent a letter to Aramark, noting that news reports about the convention center servers' complaints raised 'legitimate and reasonable questions from important Metro customer groups and Metro's elected leaders.'
Dresler asked for a 'formal written update' about the steps Aramark is taking to address the concerns being raised about older workers.