Aramark’s in the news again. This time it’s being sued for “cruel and unusual punishment” by five former inmates housed at the Kent County Correctional Facility who became ill after consuming chicken tacos contaminated with a spore-producing bacteria known to cause intestinal illness. The incident occurred in April 2012, and involved approximately 200 inmates.
The lawsuit additionally names Kent County and Sheriff Lawrence Stelma for their part in allowing the food-borne illness to occur due to recklessly contracting with a company that’s known to have a poor track record with correctional facilities. The suit states that the county acted with “deliberate indifference” by contracting with the “lowest bidder.” Aramark is known for low-balling bids to obtain contracts, then skimping on food and sanitation to squeeze out a profit.
The State of Michigan’s affliation with Aramark has been a constant source of controversy. The three-year, $145 million contract has been marked with repeated scandals, as has a similar agreement with the State of Ohio, which in spite of troubles with the company, recently decided to renew a two-year contract. Aramark has been levied significant fines for contractual breaches in both states — Ohio charged the company $272,300 and Michigan $200,000, after quietly waiving an additional $98,000 over violations.
Michigan has already paid the private vendor more than $21 million.
Aramark employees in Michigan and Ohio prisons have been found smuggling contraband and drugs. Earlier this month, an Aramark employee at Michigan’s St. Louis Correctional Facility pleaded guilty to smuggling drugs into the prison. At his March 23 sentencing he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Aramark is also stirring-up controversy in the education sector:
• Michigan State University — Last month, the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers SEIU union filed a National Labor Relations Board complaint against Aramark alleging discrepancies in a vote taken to unionize vendor employees at Michigan State University.
• Vanderbilt University — Students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., were joined by faculty and staff in a protest over outsourcing third-shift custodial services to Aramark. The group, Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence, organized the protest, as reported in the Vanderbilt Hustler:
“We wanted to get students aware of what’s happening on their campus,” said senior Margarette Webb, a VSN member who helped organize the event. “The fact that it’s the overnight shift means that a lot of students haven’t seen it happen. We want to make sure that students are aware of this so that we can mobilize that student force because on Vanderbilt’s campus, we are some of the only voices that the administration cares to listen to.”
• Georgetown University — Aramark employees recently delivered a petition to their employer demanding their contract terms reflect those found at other D.C.-based universities. The petition asserts that the workers are not second-class citizens. Demanding the same treatment as the food service employees at Aramark’s other D.C. based branches, including those at American University, Catholic University, and George Washington University, the workers asked for schedules of 40 paid hours, affordable health insurance, meaningful wage increases, protection for immigrant workers, and dignity and respect in the workplace. Over 70 percent of the unionized workers at Georgetown signed the petition.
• University of Kentucky — Signed a 15-year, $245 million contract last June with Aramark for food services at various campus locations. A Lexington, KY weekly publication — ACE, recently looked into how students felt about the new vendor, and the results are similar to those found in Chicago schools. A reporter conducted an informal student survey on the UK campus and came away with these as typical remarks:
“The food tastes worse.” –Brennan, UK Sophomore
“The fact that meals here are $9.67 is kind of ridiculous considering the quality of the food.” –Kayla, UK Junior
“They ruined Ovid’s.” –Robert, UK Sophomore
The responses range from neutral to negative. Some of the upperclassmen don’t really mind the changes, some dislike them, and some hate them. Interestingly, no one mentions an improvement.
The Aramark contract with the university was cleverly written to let the vendor off the hook with a paltry fine for poor service and food quality. Each fall, a student survey is to be conducted, by the vendor, for the purpose of evaluating satisfaction with its services — measuring five Key Performance Indicators (KPI). If the company lags on its KPI ratings, the penalty is $100,000 to be paid to a scholarship fund.
The KPI measurement for nutrition and wellness is, contrary to its name, simply a requirement for Aramark to “make available and readily accessible… complete nutrition and dietary information on all menu items.” Aramark is neglecting to do this at UK — apparently it’s easier to pony-up a hundred grand than to comply.
• Chicago Public Schools — Private sector opacity was again illustrated when Chicago Public Schools had a similar potted chicken experience when WBEZ submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find-out what was in the Aramark chicken patties, and was informed they contained “chicken patty, bun,” and the ingredients for the chicken nuggets were “chicken nuggets.”
CPS just released the results of a comprehensive internal audit which contained some insights into the origins of its contract with Aramark. The report does not use the names of CPS employees, nor the companies it does business with, however piecing together the Aramark connection isn’t all that difficult. WBEZ reports that the CPS food chief, Leslie Fowler, a former Aramark executive, was investigated for showing favoritism in awarding the contract to her former employer over another vendor.
From the CPS Office of the Inspector General’s annual report: “CPS has tangled with Aramark over another contract recently as well. Last fall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told Aramark to clean-up their act in Chicago Public Schools where they also hold a $260 million janitorial contract. Citing reports of “filthy conditions, including dead rodents and bugs, and mouse droppings.”
The Sun Times quotes the mayor: “Aramark’s job is to clean the schools, so our principals and teachers can focus on their fundamental responsibility: education. They will either live up to that contract and clean up the schools or they can clean out their desks and get out.”