Lost in transition
Since Aramark took control of the operations of the Terrace food court at Wilfrid Laurier University in June, their transition into that new role, which was previously held by the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union (WLUSU), hasn’t necessarily been smooth. Discussed at the last WLUSU board of directors meeting on Oct. 6, many student workers — mainly those who worked at the Terrace in the past — are unsatisfied with the management of Aramark and the possibility of a workers union has now emerged.
Nick Gibson, president and CEO of WLUSU, has noted that many of these changes have been a result of poor communication, something he is confident will be improved. According to Gibson, this issue, along with some others, has to do with the enormous task that comes along with this recent transition.
“There definitely have been some challenges. And I think the biggest thing for those employees is simply that this is a big new change,” said Gibson.
Aramark has chosen not to respond to any questions and has allowed WLUSU to speak on their behalf.
Some of these changes that many employees have been experiencing are because of the different approach Aramark has when it comes to operating a food court.
“It’s a totally new operator, new procedures, new ways of doing things. And for someone who got used to one way of doing things, it’s a huge thing to transition into,” continued Gibson. “Ultimately, that process is not always particularly smooth.”
Drew Swartman, a fifth-year student at Laurier, used to be an assistant student manager at Pizza Pizza, but quit because of his dissatisfaction with the new management and his new position as lead hand.
“Everything literally was changed,” he said. “One of our main good points about Pizza Pizza before the changes was that our service was really quick. We were fast, faster than any other business. They came in and told us ‘This is going to be quicker; this is going to work better’. Immediately I was thinking, ‘this isn’t going to work very well.'”
Swartman now works at the University of Waterloo under former Terrace manager, Rob Sexton. “When [Sexton] got ‘let go’ he was hired on at UW, and now I’m working with him. Management was fine before [the transition].”
One of the major concerns of both WLUSU and the student workers at Terrace is the communication between employees and Aramark and, more specifically, the quality of that communication.
“Everyone that has been involved in this process will admit some communication challenges,” added Gibson. “They’ve [Terrace employees] been saying that communication has been the biggest thing.”
“So that’s what they’re looking at right now, just improving that communication.”
In quicker paced environments such as a food court, clear communication can be lost for the employees, especially if they were used to a certain way of working.
“That communication is inevitably going to break down, no matter how complex or how elaborate you food operation is, there’s always going to be a communication break-down,” added Gibson. “So that sort of perpetuates that sort of problem that communication is always an issue.”
With communication issues between employees, managers and Aramark staff, some of the Terrace employees have chosen to apply to become a union. Although the process is in the early stages, the prospects of a union seem possible.
Williams employee Jessica Bozzato seemed positive about the possible outcome. “I know as far as Aramark goes, I believe a lot of their employees in other places are unionized as well, so I feel like they know how deal with unions,” she said.
The employees that work in the Dining Hall are unionized under the university, with the exception of five Aramark-hired managers, and receive substantially more pay than workers at the Terrace. Bozzato clarified the discrepancy. “I know that [Dining Hall] employees are under a union– and they have been for quite some time. I feel like they’ve had that time to negotiate their wages.”
Overall the process has been slow.
“There hasn’t been much talk about a [Terrace employees] union lately,” Bozzato said. “We had an info session [for Terrace employees] and as far as what is going on with that we haven’t heard much. They have ideas as to what they want to do with it but as far as going through with it nobody knows.”
Swartman was vocal in his support in the unionization of Terrace workers. “I hope for the best for them,” he said. “I mean it’s going to be a long process to get it done … It’s going to be a long and bumpy road.”
WLUSU general manager Michael McMahon instead kept neutral on their former employees forming a union. He said, “With the employees right to choose to unionize, that’s not for WLUSU to support or speak against an union. It’s entirely up to employees who are considering that for themselves.”
While not all jobs were guaranteed in the handover of the Terrace to Aramark, WLUSU’s policy when operating the Terrace in the past, and the policy that they insisted Aramark upkeep, has been that 75 per cent of the overall workers in the Terrace food court be students. However, WLUSU has yet to do a check on whether or not that is true, but they remain “confident” that Aramark is doing that.
“We’re giving them some time to lay out and actually transition themselves,” added Gibson. “The process was understood that a lot of the strong leaders we had in the food court would get equivalent positions in Aramark operations, simply because they were best for the job.”
However, Spring Rolls Go, which opened two weeks ago, has yet to see the presence of student employees. According to Gibson, the nature of the establishment may result in less student workers.
“Spring Rolls is a totally new operation so that they didn’t have anyone trained here. You need to open it with workers that aren’t students,” he explained, noting that Aramark’s expectation is that fewer student employees will be working at Spring Rolls Go. “It’s very high paced, it’s very go, go, go. More so than a typical food service operation. It takes a little while for that to transition.”
Aramark made any student who was an assistant student manger under WLUSU a “lead hand” and implemented additional manager positions for the Terrace as a whole.
“Now, there [are] seven or eight people above my old position. I went from having one boss to having seven,” explained Swartman, the former assistant student manager at Pizza, Pizza. He also noted how his given position of lead hand seemed lower than his original promised position of assistant manager.
Both Gibson and McMahon asserted that students are not being paid less than they were last year. They claimed that the 25-cent increase promised to employees transferring under the new management was given.
WLUSU added that food prices have not been changed since last year because they insisted that Aramark not alter them for one year.
Since opening, there has only been one incident reported from Spring Rolls Go. When Spring Rolls Go had its opening, the Waterloo Public Health noticed food safety violations, but all were corrected the following day.
On whether or not WLUSU is making or losing money on this transition with Aramark, Gibson and McMahon stated they could not reveal such information, but Gibson did say it doesn’t “compromise” other WLUSU services.
Overall, Gibson and McMahon believe that the transitions have been relatively smooth, but there’s always room for improvement. “They haven’t been terrible, they haven’t been negligent, it’s just that it is a really tough project,” said Gibson.
“It takes awhile, this is not something where we can just grade them now, you need to grade them moving forward.”