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Book of Matthew: Aramark’s wage problem

Published: March 26, 2010
Section: Opinions


It is a generally accepted notion among businesses that workers must be paid for all services rendered. Usually, that means paying employees fair wages.

Usually.

Aramark seems to be having trouble with this idea—in its own backyard, no less. The Philadelphia-based company stands accused of cheating 3,000 employees of several Philadelphia sports stadiums: Citizens Bank Park, the Wachovia Center and Lincoln Financial Field. And these employees are not happy.

Lynne Fox, head of the Philadelphia Joint Board of the Workers United union, teamed up with five current and former Aramark employees this month to file a class-action lawsuit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. They brought forward two main complaints: that Aramark had knowingly paid employees standard wages for what should have been overtime work, and that it had refused to compensate employees for working through their lunch breaks during busy hours.

All of this is illegal. Pennsylvania wage laws require employers to pay a rate of no less than one and a half times an employee’s regular wage for hours exceeding 40 per week. This was reinforced in every worker’s contract. And although the state does not have meal break laws for workers 18 and older, federal law only allows meal breaks to go unpaid if the employee on break is completely relieved of all duties. If employees have to work through lunch, it is not considered a break and they are entitled to their normal wages. Without this requirement, it is possible for low-income workers to actually average less than the minimum wage.

But rather than play by the rules, Aramark apparently tried to hide its actions by confusing its employees. It issued pay stubs that only listed the total wages earned, without showing the number of hours worked. This made it far more difficult for employees to keep track of their pay, forcing them to do the math themselves. By the time many of them had discovered that they were being underpaid, Aramark had made off with an extra $2 million.

So far, Aramark has remained more or less silent throughout this process (although one spokesperson did insist to the press that no laws were broken before declining to comment further). But really, what can the company say? This is not the first time it has gotten in trouble for not paying employees properly. In April 2009, Aramark agreed to pay $154,320 and all attorney fees to 419 Philadelphia Convention Center workers. Two months later, Aramark reached a $1.5 million settlement with Fenway Park workers. In both cases, the workers accused the company of denying them rightful pay.

There are countless more cases out there. Some have received quite a bit of media attention, some not so much. But whoever is in charge of Aramark’s pay policies must have been quite busy lately, to say the least.

A former Aramark employee and current plaintiff summed up the situation to the Philadelphia Inquirer rather simply: “That was the way they did business.” Aramark long ago stopped showing any interest in responsible business practices. More and more, it has become apparent that the company does not treat its employees with respect, but rather as tools for which it can use to reap larger profits.

A company like this does not deserve to do business. And it certainly does not deserve business from Brandeis, where we claim to believe in social justice. Even though there is no evidence that Aramark has ever mistreated Brandeis workers, the money we pay inevitably goes toward financing mistreatment elsewhere. And there is no justice in that.