Julia Rivera spent 18 years at Colorado College, but on the hourly wages she earned as a campus food-service worker, she'd never be able to afford a four-year degree from the selective private school.
"Throughout all the years at the college, I only got $8.65 per hour," said Rivera, who retired last December. "I worked very hard, and very seldom was I off work."
Rivera, according to a group of student activists at the college, exemplifies a pattern of widespread underpayment and unsatisfactory conditions for low-wage workers at CC. After years of complaints from concerned students and faculty members, the college has finally agreed to look into the issue.
Responding to a campaign by a student group called CC Fair Labor, the college's administration recently formed a committee to study campus labor issues, with representation from students, faculty, staff and administrators. The committee will examine, among other things, the findings of a report by CC Fair Labor that specifically targets Sodexho Inc., the company that contracts the college's food services and facilities management.
Among the many allegations in the report, released in January, are that Sodexho offers wages below most area standards, imposes unusually high workloads on employees, offers unaffordable health insurance and seeks to dissuade workers from unionizing. The report also concludes that CC itself doesn't pay its own support staff adequate wages.
Such treatment runs counter to the college's professed mission of promoting social responsibility and personal growth, CC Fair Labor contends.
"We want to be a leader in the community," said Greg Putnam, a freshman and co-author of the report. To be a leader, he said, CC must set a good example.
Sodexho, meanwhile, disputes much of the report.
"It's dead wrong in many cases," said Leslie Aun, a company spokeswoman.
A nationwide campaign
Formed last November, CC Fair Labor is part of a nationwide campaign targeting Sodexho, based in Gaithersburg, Md. Formerly known as Sodexho-Marriott, it is one of North America's largest food-service and facilities management companies. Its other clients in Colorado Springs include UCCS, Pikes Peak Community College and several public K-12 schools.
Across the nation in recent years, students at colleges that contract with Sodexho have protested the corporation's investments in the private-prison industry. Although Sodexho divested from the U.S. prison industry last year, student groups and labor unions have continued to attack the company, claiming it has an abysmal record in how it treats and compensates its workers.
According to CC Fair Labor, the starting wage for a Sodexho janitor at CC is $7.50 per hour. In comparison, federal contractors must pay janitors a minimum of $7.79 per hour, and the average janitorial wage in the Springs area is $9.18 per hour, the report states.
A worker supporting a family of four and earning less than $8.46 per hour falls below the federal poverty line, the report notes. And to afford the true cost of housing, food, health care and other basic needs in the Springs, a worker must earn a "living wage" of at least $12.85 per hour, CC Fair Labor estimates.
"Good corporate citizen"
Sodexho countered the students' report earlier this month with a written response disputing many of its findings. "There were a lot of factual inaccuracies," said Aun, the company spokeswoman, in an interview.
Aun said Sodexho employs 72 full-time workers in food service at CC and 47 in facilities management. The average food-service worker earns $9.23 per hour and receives two free meals per day, she said. When benefits are added, the average compensation is worth an estimated $12.30, she said. Janitorial workers receive an average of $8.45 per hour plus benefits, she said.
Critics often overlook the benefits, which are more generous than those of many competitors, Aun said. She disputed the contention that Sodexho wages are below market. "I think we've been able to attract good people because I think we're competitive," she said.
She also disputed the assertion that Sodexho is anti-union, saying the company supports the workers' right to organize. "They really have that right," she said. "That is our company's policy, and it's also our belief."
The company is trying to be a "good corporate citizen" and is constantly working to improve itself, Aun said. However, if Sodexho were to pay all workers a "living wage," it would wipe out the company's 3-percent profit margin in three to five years, she said. It would also increase the cost of its services.
"Are the students at Colorado College willing to pay more for food service at the campus in order to support a wage increase for the hourly employees?" she asked.
College commends students
The college's business manager David Lord agreed that parts of CC Fair Labor's report were "very inaccurate." Still, "I think the students have, in a very responsible manner, come forth with a very well thought-out paper," Lord said. "I have great admiration for the work that the students have done."
Lord said the committee recently appointed by the college will look at establishing principles for workers' rights. It will also work to determine whether CC should continue to hire contractors for its food service and facilities management. If it decides to continue contracting, the college could possibly put the Sodexho contract out to bid next year. The contract hasn't been bid out for at least 15 years, Lord said. He would not disclose the overall terms of the contract.
Putnam said CC Fair Labor is optimistic that the committee will make a difference. "It seems like it's pretty fair and balanced."
Rivera, meanwhile, said that while she has retired and thus won't benefit personally, she supports the students' efforts.
"I think that it is so good that they're doing this," she said. "It's so nice of them."
Janitorial Wage Facts
$12.85 The hourly wage necessary to afford housing, food, utilities, healthcare, and other basic needs in Colorado Springs
$10.02 Starting wage of janitors at local elementary schools
$9.18 Average janitorial wage in the Colorado Springs region
$8.55 Starting wage for janitors at Pikes Peak Community College
$8.46 Federal poverty line -- determines eligibility for food stamps, medicaid and other federal programs
$8.17 Starting wage for janitors at CU-Springs
$8.01 10th percentile wages for Colorado Springs (90% of Colorado Springs janitors are paid above $8.01)
$7.79 Service Contract Act wage -- it is illegal for the federal government or its contractors to pay janitors below this wage
$7.50 Starting wage for janitors at Colorado College