Dining hall workers empowered by Justice on the Menu movement


Some have felt powerless to improve low benefits


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Falk Dining Commons worker Kenny Blackwell works a second job outside of Penn but still cannot afford the next tier of insurance. His wife, Carolyn, needs additional medicine for her cholesterol condition. Read the full article here.

Photo by Luke Chen


Last week, Falk Dining Commons worker Kenny Blackwell and his wife Carolyn were told something that no one wants to hear: Carolyn Blackwell needed medicine for her cholesterol, but their insurance, which is offered through Aetna by Bon Appétit, would not stretch to cover even the generic version of the drug.

Their insurance covers about $1,000 worth of prescription medication per year. If she fills her prescription for the cholesterol medicine, she will have to pay out of pocket for the other five medications she currently takes daily.

“[My doctor] said whatever I got would be expensive … and it would probably [max out my insurance] and I would be responsible for the other five medicines,” Carolyn said.

This is not a new situation for Carolyn Blackwell — who has serious lung and heart problems. She chose to forgo a sleep apnea machine — which helps a person breathe while they sleep — so that the insurance would cover an important heart procedure she might need soon.

“The insurance, there’s a cap on it. And by me having different medical issues, some things I have to do with out,” she said. “You have to be careful about what you use it for.”

Like many Bon Appétit employees at Penn, Kenny Blackwell has a second job. Even with the income from two jobs, the Blackwells still cannot afford a higher tier of insurance, which would pay for more procedures.

Recently the Student Labor Action Project launched their Justice on the Menu campaign. The campaign which is due to vote on representation from Teamsters Local Union 929, a prominent union, is demanding for better wages and benefits.

“She has to choose between getting a procedure and getting medicine based on which is cheaper or more important,” said Kenny.

Still, Carolyn is not one to complain. She, matter-of-factly, explains the different insurance options that Bon Appétit makes available to employees, the cost of generic medicine and her own medical needs.

“She’s such a survivor,” College junior and SLAP member Penny Jennewein observed after meeting Carolyn.

During the summer, when some dining halls are closed and Kenny is out of work, the Blackwells’ situation worsens. Kenny was able to find temporary work last summer, but in previous years — when jobs were scarcer — they could not afford to buy Carolyn’s medicine.

“Getting unemployment, you’re squeezing yourself just to pay the bills, so I don’t get medicine,” she said.

When the school year starts up again, the Blackwells must pay for near four months worth of insurance, because they do not receive a paycheck during the summer. The company takes a cut out of their paycheck to pay for the summer’s insurance fees. This adds more financial strain which makes it difficult to pay medical fees.

“When you come back, they’re taking double out of your pay,” explained Kenny. “It really adds up … It’s really hard to see a regular pay when you get back to work.”

However, Blackwell believes that he should be eligible for a summer job at Bon Appétit, since he was a chef in the past and Bon Appétit employs all campus chefs during the summer.

When Bon Appétit took over Penn’s dining halls in 2009, they promised that all of the dining hall workers could keep their positions. Workers who were chefs under Aramark — the previous management company — were guaranteed that they would remain chefs under Bon Appétit. However since Blackwell had no written proof of his promotion to chef while working for Aramark, he was demoted.

“When the company took over … they said that everyone would maintain the same position and the same pay and everyone did but they never recognized me,” Kenny said.

He called Aramark to obtain written proof, but the management company said that they could only release this information to Bon Appétit. Blackwell does not believe Bon Appétit ever made the call.

Bon Appétit declined to comment saying they do not comment on individual employment cases.

“It being a hard time in the country with the recession, I took it no further than that,” said Kenny, of trying to regain his former position. “They made us feel like we were just lucky to have a job.”

According to Bonnie Powell, director of communications for Bon Appétit, when they first came to Penn they “paid out [workers’] accumulated vacation by their prior employer consistent with state law.” Workers, such as Blackwell, said those who had accrued a lot of vacation time over nearly a decade, lost a lot of this time.

It was after Bon Appétit’s arrival at Penn that Blackwell and other workers at Hillel realized they needed to organize for better wages.

“We tried something a few years back, when Aramark was here. They recognized we were being underpaid and gave us a few raises,” Kenny said. “Troy [Harris, another worker] was trying to tell me then, and I should have listened, that we should try to get organized, some sort of unity to protect us for the future. I thought our good work and reputation was good enough.”

Now, about two years after dining hall workers first contacted SLAP about organizing for better conditions, the workers feel empowered.

“It felt great,” Blackwell said of the campaign going public. “I think we’re going to achieve our goals if we have the support of the students.”

Blackwell believes that support from students, especially those who often go to Hillel, is the key to winning the campaign.

Hillel’s dining hall is known for its strong sense of community. Students who keep kosher on Penn’s campus eat there every day, forging friendships with each other and the dining hall workers. Since he started working at Hillel in 1999, Blackwell has seen entire families pass through Penn.

When College junior and SLAP member Eliana Machefsky arrived on campus three years ago, the Hillel staff was reminded of her sister, who graduated in 2009.

“Kenny told me from day one ‘I have your back.’ He’s really looking out for the students,” she said.

She says she has since become friends with other workers and students at Hillel.

“All the students from Hillel since the year 2000, they’re still our friends. Their sisters and brothers are here right now,” Kenny said. “When they’re in Israel or Africa, they send us a postcard saying hi. They’re all over the world now.”

While he loves the community he has become a part of, he still worries about his future.

“We started from zero and had to work our way back up,” Kenny remembers when Penn changed food management companies. “We just want some security … where we can not worry about starting over.”

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