UBDS hosts forum to discuss Sodexo worker wages

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On the evening of April 8, 2015, United for Better Dining Services (UBDS) hosted another open forum in which they invited Staff, students and Sodexo workers to discuss the socio-economic and ethical implications of raising the minimum wages for Sodexo workers on campus. Numerous students, faculty, staff and administrators, including President Greene and Vice President of Administration Douglas Terp, joined UBDS leaders, Ana Sofia Canales ’18, Hiya Islam ’15, Ester Topolarova ’17 and Marina Arcuschin de Oliviera ’15 for a discussion.

Canales opened the discussion by addressing UBDS’s goals of raising the current minimum wage of the Sodexo workers to the living wage in the Waterville area of $15 per hour in order to improve living conditions in the community. Greene then took over the microphone and went on to thank everyone for coming and emphasize the importance of the issue as “the way we are as a workplace reflects what kind of work place Colby is.”

Greene closed his address by raising a point that set the tone for the discussion: “Sometimes our ideologies come in conflict with our realities.” Although many people in the community would like to see workers’ wages raised, the College operates on a strict budget and the extra funding has to come from somewhere, whether that means raising tuitions or cutting other costs.

Vice President of Administration Doug Terp then took the stage to give insight into the College’s economics as well as the projected cost of the project. Colby’s yearly budget in the academic year 2014-2015 was $155 million. Out of these $155 million, 72 percent is generated from student charges, 18 percent from the endowment, 6 percent from donations and 4 percent from other sources.

On the expenditure side, 43 percent goes to instruction, 19 percent into aid, and 38 percent into other services (including facilities, student services and dining). Dining services make up roughly four percent of the budget, at $7.5 million per annum (this includes $2.5 million for food, $1.5 million for operating expenses, and $3.5 million for wages and fees). The dining services are outsourced to Sodexo and the College pays this sum in order for them to manage everything from dining menus to human resources. According to Terp, the estimated cost of raising the wages for the workers to $15 per hour would cost the College an additional 3.1 million dollars to 4.7 million dollars (taking into account wage hierarchies) per year.

The forum then went into a discussion on where this money would come from. If student charges were to cover the cost, it would result in a tuition increase of $1,660 to $2,200 per year. This would be on top of the recently announced increase for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Other ways of realizing the suggested goal would be to either relocate funds within the dining budget (by reducing operating hours or instituting program changes) or to even reallocate funds within the college budget. Terp pointed out that the budget is already stretched thin with several departments requesting more funding. He also pointed out that the College has been in a process of raising the dining hall staffs’ starting wages from $7.50 per hour in 2012 to $10 by 2016. Greene continued to say that this will be done in yearly installments and that it requires significant planning and effort from the management.

As the discussion turned back to the audience, students questioned what we should prioritize as an institution. Is it fair to be spending nearly $100 million on facility improvements in the next few years, while UBDS claims that several Sodexo workers struggle to stay afloat? Students also asked if Terp and his team discussed any areas within the school budget that seemed fair to reduce in order to make way for increased wages, to which Terp responded that no such analysis has been made as of yet.

Another student raised the point of asking whether the College should “cut out the middle-man” and get rid of Sodexo completely, referencing other schools such as Bates or Bowdoin who operate their own dining services. Although this might seem like an appealing option, Director of Dining Services Larry Llewellyn clarified that this would not necessarily reduce the costs significantly due to the extra management required. He added that raising or lowering wages does not increase or decrease Sodexo’s profitability from the College because Colby pays a fee to Sodexo to develop and manage a budget for the dining services.

Although there were still plenty of questions and issues to be discussed, Greene was forced to bring the discussion to and end due to time constraints. In his closing remarks, he once again addressed the fact that raising the minimum wages for the dining hall workers by 25 percent over the next 3 years, as well as increasing the salaries of other Colby workers by seven to nine percent, is a very focused effort. He also pointed out that $15 per hour is not “some magic number. It could be higher, could be lower.” In order to move forward in the discourse, the community has to decide if this is a key priority. Greene expressed that this is a key issue to him but that the college is already juggling other issues and wishes to increase financial aid and to increase the already limited number of full-time professors.

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