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Shirley Leung

Sodexo drops health care benefits for some, blaming Obamacare

Something stinks in college cafeterias managed by French catering company Sodexo, and it has nothing to do with the food.

Campus by campus, many workers are losing their healthcare benefits, as Sodexo recalculates how it classifies full-time employees. The company blames Obamacare, explaining in a slick three-page fact sheet that it needed to re-do its definition of a full-time worker to comply with the new health care law.

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Really? I don’t think so. But don’t just take my word for it.

“There’s nothing in the law that requires Sodexo do this,” said John McDonough, a professor at Harvard School of Public Health and former executive director of Health Care for All, the group that pushed for universal health care in Massachusetts. “They are choosing to do this.”

The French giant runs cafeterias for big companies and government agencies, but this new formula largely affects their college employees who work full time during the school year and have summers off.

Sodexo faces steep penalties if it doesn’t offer health insurance to full-time workers. To keep the accounting simple, the company decided to determine who is full time based on hours worked annually, instead of quarterly.

Doing so meant a bunch of workers suddenly became part time and their benefits were cut off in January. Others -- including those at University of Massachusetts-Boston and Suffolk University -- are set to lose health coverage as union contracts are renegotiated. Sodexo has about 4,800 workers on 30 campuses in Massachusetts.

Sodexo will tell you the change doesn’t affect that many people -- just under 4,000 of its 125,000 employees in the US have or will lose health care coverage.

The company’s right on that point, but here’s where it’s wrong. These workers -- the cafeteria ladies, cashiers, and cooks – barely make a living as is. They are the very people who can least afford to fend for themselves.

Among them is Chuck Long, a 62-year-old baker at Curry College in Milton, whose family relied on his Sodexo health insurance.

He worked 1,450 hours last year – about 100 hours shy of the minimum to qualify for full-time status. From his $32,000 annual salary, he was paying $420 a month for health care coverage through Sodexo. Not cheap, but out on his own his premium rocketed to more than $1,400 a month.

Even in the great state of Massachusetts, where we bleed health care for everyone, he could no longer afford coverage. His wife works part-time, and together they make too much to qualify for subsidized insurance. So he, his wife, and 17-year-old son with diabetes go without.

“It is a blatant money grab,” Long said of Sodexo’s decision.

Of course it is. How else could the company keep generating about $25 billion in revenue and $725 million in annual profit?

About 20 workers, or nearly a third of the food-service staff at Curry College, have lost their benefits. To ease the pain, Sodexo is giving them small raises, but workers say it doesn’t make them whole. Meanwhile, employees, with the help of the Unite Here union, are trying to organize.

If Sodexo doesn’t care, does Curry College?

Sort of.

A spokeswoman says it farms out food services to Sodexo so it can focus on academics, but the school does support the rights of employees to improve their working conditions, such as deciding whether to unionize.

If Curry is passing the buck, what about UMass Boston, where the majority of its 50 unionized food-service workers could see their healthcare insurance disappear?

UMass Boston, in a statement, said the administration has let the French contractor know its workers deserve better. “We are proud of our long record of supporting fair labor practices and championing the rights of workers, and we have conveyed this commitment to Sodexo,” it said.

What unions like Unite Here fear is that Sodexo, with extra money banked, can now underbid competitors Aramark and Compass Group. That, in turn, will force them to start reclassifying their workers to keep their costs down.

Roxana Rivera, district leader of 32BJ SEIU, which represents about 60 unionized workers at Suffolk, said college administrators aren’t innocent bystanders. “These contracts exist because clients hire them,” Rivera said. “They have to have better contracts.”

So what say you, Suffolk? A university spokesman isn’t saying anything.

If colleges aren’t happy with the way workers are being treated, they can launch a food fight, or take Sodexo off the menu.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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