Workers Protest Against Discipline for Sick Time

Local 753 member Arthur Reischl puts on a blue bandage to join a silent protest pushing for better working conditions.
Local 753 member Arthur Reischl puts on a blue bandage to join a silent protest pushing for better working conditions.

St. Cloud State University workers wore blue bandages on their faces and necks Wednesday to protest how food service workers are treated.

The Chartwells food services workers – who are members of AFSCME Local 753 – were joined in their silent bandage protest by more than 30 union brothers and sisters who work for St. Cloud State. Local 2385 plans a similar action at Chartwells at Southwest Minnesota State University in support of St. Cloud food service employees.

“We’re doing this in solidarity with the Chartwells employees,” says Laurie Luethmers, president of Local 753, which includes separate units for food services and St. Cloud State. “They’ve been treated like crap for too long.”

Workers in Local 753's St. Cloud State University unit put on bandages to support their union brothers and sisters in the local's Chartwell's unit. The Chartwells food services workers are being penalized for calling in sick.
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Chartwells’ workers have a host of concerns: They’re underpaid. The company is cutting people’s hours. It’s not replacing all the people who have left, leaving shifts understaffed. It’s changing people’s hours without giving proper notice. Turnover is high.

Chartwells is disciplining workers for calling in sick. Even if they’re highly contagious. Even if they have a doctor’s note. Even if they have unused sick time coming.

Those absences are considered unexcused, and each one earns a worker a point.  Get sick often enough, or add in other emergencies like a car breaking down or an ill child, and workers can get suspended or even fired.

“There are a lot of those employees who come in sick because they can’t afford to get fired,” Luethmers says. “They’re coming in sick and making food. That’s not right. No one should be afraid to call in sick.”

“I think it’s terrible,” says Vicki Helget, chief steward of Local 753’s Chartwells unit. “I think it’s degrading. It’s got to stop. When you’re sick, you’re sick.”

One worker who took turns with his wife staying home with their sick baby got a disciplinary point for each day he was off, Helget says.

Another worker had a seriously contagious disease. She tried coming back to work when she was still ill, then had to return home sick again. That earned her more points, even though she had doctor and hospital notes. When she was late one day because her car wouldn’t start, there was no wiggle room due to her illness, and she got fired; AFSCME is grieving that.

“I feel it goes against our union contract,” says steward Kathy Arntson. “It just seems crazy you would get a point if you have a doctor’s slip or you have a foodborne illness and they still expect you to come to work. They’re telling us, yeah, you’re sick, but it doesn’t matter.”

Along with wearing blue bandages to show support, Local 753 is taking numerous other actions. Local leaders are starting to track these disciplinary points and plan to grieve each point given for sick time. They’re talking to university administrators to make sure the campus policy on respect applies to its vendors, too.

“The administration is always talking about the campus community, but I think they forget the food service workers, whether they be students or the private vendor, they’re also the campus community,” Luethmers says.

If needed, the local may reach out to students for support, she says. Just like wearing blue bandages, the point is to illustrate that an injury to one is an injury to all.