Sodexo sick days policy under scrutiny

Former Sodexo employee Michelle "Esther" Hasskamp testifies before the Senate Economic Development Committee about the company's sick-days policy, while Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan (background) listens. Photo by Hilary Niles

Former Sodexo employee Michelle “Esther” Hasskamp testifies before the Senate Economic Development Committee about the company’s sick-days policy, while Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan (background) listens. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Food service workers from Vermont college campuses testified at the Vermont Statehouse Wednesday that company policies all but force them to come to work sick.

Their employer, Sodexo, instituted a policy in 2012 that penalizes workers for taking sick days. Sodexo operates dining halls and cafes at the University of Vermont, the Vermont State Colleges and elsewhere in the state.

“I can tell you, people are coming in sick,” Deb Ploof, a Sodexo supervisor at UVM library’s Cyber Cafe, told the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs.

Ploof said employees are issued “points” on their personnel records for each “occurrence” of taking a sick day. Seven points within a rolling calendar year is grounds for dismissal.

“We don’t want to hamstring businesses,” Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said. “But this is ridiculous.”

Former Sodexo employee Michelle “Esther” Hasskamp lost her job at Johnson State College after surgery related to advanced gallbladder disease. She described one colleague who repeatedly threw up in a trash can during his cashier shift.

Ploof and Hasskamp reported widespread fear among employees — not only that they will be penalized for taking sick days, but also that they may face retaliation for going public with their concerns about the policy.

Mullin acknowledged that the committee still did not have the other side of the story from Sodexo’s perspective. He and other committee members expressed displeasure that Sodexo officials, though invited and repeatedly encouraged to attend the hearing or send their lobbyist, chose neither option.

A letter from the company to the committee in advance of the hearing addressed not the sick-days policy at hand, but an earlier flap Sodexo initially blamed on the federal Affordable Care Act.

Word got out in September that the French-owned multinational food services firm planned to redefine full-time employment that qualifies workers for full benefits packages. UVM President Tom Sullivan put the brakes on that for the time being, citing a clause in their contract that allows university review of such policy changes.

But Sullivan has indicated that he’s staying out of the sick days question, according to Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, who presented the issue to fellow committee members Thursday morning.

Baruth is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit employers from penalizing workers for making legitimate use of sick leave or any other employee benefit. He said Sodexo’s language in its write-up policy (called a “coaching” within the company) leaves no question that sick leave is treated as a disciplinary matter.

United Academics, the faculty union at UVM associated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, is supporting Sodexo workers on both the full-time employment and sick days issues.

Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan said the actions Hasskamp described that led to her dismissal may constitute a violation of the Family Medical Leave Act.

The state law requires certain employers “to allow full-time employees to take up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave for pregnancy, birth, adoption, or serious illness of themselves or close family members,” according to the state Attorney General’s Office. Noonan said it also affords protection for employees with chronic medical conditions, and prohibits retaliation against workers who use their rights in accordance with the law.

She emphasized that the state Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division is available to answer workers’ questions about such employment practices and policies.

The state labor department’s jurisdiction in a case like that unfolding at Sodexo is limited, Noonan said, due to the company’s size and national scope. But state staff can help direct Vermont workers to the appropriate federal resources for investigation and recourse, she said.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, pointed out that people working to “put food in their mouths” may not have the luxury of waiting out a prolonged federal investigation, however.

Mullin directed Noonan and other state officials to continue looking into whether Sodexo’s policy constitutes a violation of law, and if it represents an emerging trend in employment practices. Noonan said she had seen similar reports crop up in other states.

Mullin said that even if a company can get away with such a policy in terms of employment law, he would hope the state could address related public health concerns.

Employees worry about spreading illness by coming to work sick, Ploof and Hasskamp said. They worry about their own health and safety, too.

Hasskamp recounted working one day when she was so dizzy that a school official was worried she may fall down and hit her head.

“I was too,” Hasskamp said. “But I was more worried about losing my job.”

Ploof told a similar story on behalf of her daughter, who had to be talked into having emergency surgery because she was afraid of losing her job from the “points” it would mean.

Ploof is a longtime employee of Sodexo whose husband has worked for the company for 23 years. She said it used to be more family-oriented, but they’ve seen a change in priorities in the last few years.

This article was updated at 10:13 a.m. on Jan. 17, 2014.

Hilary Niles

Comments

  1. Jim Barrett :

    Why should any company pay sick days when the individual should prepare themselves for the day when that might happen. That is one reason why we have insurance companies and we can insure ourselves against a tragedy. Not in Vermont, we stiff the employer because he is the money man who should always pay for problems that have nothing to do with employment. Good old Vermont, the socialist snake pit run by extreme left wingers!

    • Walter Carpenter :

      ‘Why should any company pay sick days when the individual should prepare themselves for the day when that might happen.”

      I bet the company managers here at Sodexo get sick days. Do you object to that, since you seem to loathe working people? They’re managers and not those working for much lower wages, who cannot possibly prepare for gallbladder surgery because they are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Having paid sick days at a company I once worked at saved me when I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself down with a life-threatening illness. There is no way you can prepare for that eventuality and it will strike without warning. No, these Sodexo people deserve to be investigated.

  2. Dave Bellini :

    Hypothetically speaking: Who treats employees the worst?
    .
    1. A private company that gives employees sick days but fires them if they use too many.
    .
    OR
    .
    2. A state government that hires correctional officers as temporary employees and gives them NO SICK DAYS.

    Let’s see, a private company probably pays less and may not provide the best benefits. Many private companies can fire employees easily. Private companies can move employees to part time.

    In the other hypothetical example a state government that provides no benefits whatsoever seems harsh. Correctional officer work is dangerous and it’s 24/7/365, so working on Christmas is probable. Hypothetically, what if the state had a Governor that claimed he wanted to bring healthcare to all but ignored some of his own employees doing a very dangerous job?

    • Victor Badaracco :

      Well, could I say maybe Unions are not as bad as everyone thinks.
      Most Unions are supportive of the worker as well as the employer.
      Just a thought!!

    • Janice Prindle :

      Two wrongs don’t make a right. All workers deserve to be treated decently, temporary or not, public or private. Unions are vital in this regard . Sounds like the Corrections Dept. is using temporary workers to get around the union, and that is wrong. But if you are going to complain about correctional workers working on Christmas, then don’t shop at Walmart. There’s a big difference between jobs that society needs 24-7 (which tend to be better paid and protected by unions) and the ones that only serve to enrich billionaires (which tend not to be). Neither though carries the threat to public health that Sodexo poses in forcing sick workers to prepare and serve food. An executive profit margin is not a public good.

  3. Janice Prindle :

    Why hire an international food firm anyway? Hire local professionals to manage the food program and work out bulk purchasing with Vermont suppliers. Make it nonprofit and workers can be treated as all workers deserve.

    • joanie maclay :

      Janice Prindle
      Loving your suggestion.
      Keep it local has so many great advantages.
      More jobs, better quality & will say I truly believe a workforce…working for “locally” owned businesses will find themseves in a much better place.
      VT. Will be much better served by LOCAL. .a guide towards making VT leaning to more self efficiency.
      Joanie Maclay

    • AWESOME idea!!! But don’t forget that this company also takes care of the food food service in many of Vermont’s healthcare facilities; ie: Brat Retreat and Hospital….

  4. John Smith :

    How does FMLA not cover Miss Michelle above?

    Worked there for less than 12 months or worked under 1250hr’s the prior year?

    These are businesses not charities.

  5. Ralph Mueckenheim :

    Sodexo are in Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor too.

  6. I truly think that if someone’s performance should mean something instead of being punished for the amount of sick days you take I myself know how it feels I just got fired from sodexo after working there for 6 and a half years and had an outstanding performance but had certain medical conditions I had to continue treatment with and with the point system for sick days I was 1.5 points over and they wouldn’t do anything to help me keep my job even tho everything was all documented that’s was sad and to top it off they had let me work 8 days til they made their decision in letting me go so in saying this I feel they should be investigated

  7. sandra miller :

    It doesn’t sound like the issue here is whether or not the time off is paid, but how many days off are permitted during the rolling year.
    The reason there are jobs is that there is work to be done. The expectation on the part of the employer is that people will come to work. Seven days off, or instances of absence are actually a lot. That said, time of for a “serious health condition” is protected (i.e. the time off cannot be held against someone for disciplinary reasons), under the FMLA, a federal law. This includes intermittent time off needed for a serious health condition that may require periodic treatment, such as chemotherapy, or time off needed to take a direct family member such as an elderly parent to the doctor.
    There isn’t enough information here to develop a reasonable opinion or response, including whether it is 7 individual days or 7 instances/occurrences of absence, such as being gone for 4 days with the flu – is that one occurrence or 4?
    There are federal laws that protect the individual. Sodexo is well aware of the laws. It seems unreasonable, but not impossible, to think they would knowingly violate any of those laws understanding the serious consequences.
    Finally, no one is advocating that someone who is truly ill should come to work, especially not in a hospital.
    Anyone having questions re: time off and discipline should contact their HR department and if there isn’t one, contact your state or federal department of labor.
    There is always another side to the story; more information is needed and less jumping to conclusions.

  8. Nancy thompson :

    I agree Sandra there is another side. !!

    • Clifton Cheney :

      I agree with Sandra and Nancy there is alaways another side, and Kim Austin knows that all too well.

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