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.