An April report conducted by UNITE HERE Local 1 — the union which represents Loyola Dining employees — found dining hall workers struggle to support themselves and their families with their current wage. Student organizers are working with the union to circulate a petition for students to sign, calling for support for the workers.
The report — titled “The Story of Aramark Employees at Loyola University Chicago” — found Aramark, the company which oversees Loyola Dining, on average pays its employees $17,078 annually, nearly $20,000 less than what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Living Wage Calculator estimates the living wage for a single adult with no children in Cook County would be.
The $17,078 annual salary of an Aramark employee at Loyola is nearly $60,000 short of what the living wage calculator estimates would be required to support a family of four in Chicago, and is more than $70,000 less than what would be needed for a single parent with two children.
Global economic factors have placed even more of a burden on workers struggling to make ends meet, MIT’s data reflects the cost of living as it was in January. Inflation has led to rapid increases in the prices of food and gas in recent months, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
In addition to facts and figures regarding living conditions, the report describes the importance of Aramark employees, including Loyola dining cooks, food handlers, service attendants, utility workers and dishwashers in the Loyola community. It said the university relies on workers to “keep their students and staff well fed.”
UNITE HERE Local 1 surveyed 84 of the 191 union members Aramark employees at Loyola between January and March regarding their everyday financial situations. Of the 84 respondents, 61% reported they lack the necessary funds to buy healthy food for themselves and their families. In addition over the last six months 77% lacked enough money to pay bills and 77% report having less than $1,000 in savings.
University spokesperson Anna Rozenich said Loyola chooses only to partner with vendors who align with the university’s mission and values, in a statement nearly identical to the one the university provided when an investigation by The Phoenix found 20 students became ill after eating food from the dining halls.
“Loyola routinely monitors the business practices and behaviors of all our major vendors and will continue to do so with Aramark,” Rozenich said. “Should we discover that they have deviated from their responsibilities, we will take appropriate action. However, at this time, we see no evidence to question Aramark’s corporate alignment with Loyola’s mission and commitment to social justice.”
At the time of publication Aramark has not responded to The Phoenix’s request for comment.
The union’s report included quotes from surveyed members, including Wilson Taylor, a utility worker who works in de Nobili Dining Hall.
“The $15.50 I make does not match the work I do,” Wilson told the union. “I can barely pay my bills with the money I make here. I have an 8-year-old who needs support and $15.50 just isn’t enough.”
Further, 35% of the respondents reported someone in their household was unable to see a doctor because they could not afford it and 33% have had someone in their household go hungry because they didn’t have enough money to buy food, according to the report.
“It is difficult to live with the salary I earn because I barely cover personal expenses and I cannot have any extra to save or support my family,” Joe Salas, a utility worker in Damen Dining Hall, said in the report.
“I love working at Loyola, but Aramark pays me so little that I have a very hard time paying all my bills and sending my two kids to college,” Lai Ling Chiu, a food service worker in Simpson Dining Hall, said in the report. “Even with a second job it’s hard to cover my expenses.”
In October 2021, dining workers at DePaul University and Northwestern University — both represented by UNITE HERE Local 1 — signed new contracts which increased their hourly wage to $19.88, after workers at both universities voted to initiate a strike.
Last March, Loyola union members were able to negotiate a new contract, which included a $1.50 wage increase as well as protections and paid sick leave for workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, The Phoenix reported.
Jacob Plaza, a junior double majoring in philosophy and data science, is involved in organizing student support for the worker’s cause.
“We consider ourselves a part of a community here which includes fellow students, faculty and the cafeteria workers,” Plaza said in a statement. “The workers especially are a central reason why our students can feel welcome and at home on campus. Many of us are friends with them and look forward to interacting with them every day. Without Loyola’s cafeteria workers, our community would simply not be able to function.”
A group of Aramark employees and students delivered the report to the office of Community Service and Action in the Damen Student Center April 4, though Plaza told The Phoenix no one was there to receive it.
“The purpose was to show student support and show the workers they support each other,” Plaza said. “It was very empowering to have everyone there showing solidarity with the workers.”
UNITE HERE Local 1, and student organizers including Plaza, are gathering signatures on a petition which calls for a “solution which is just and humane” for the employees.
“The food workers employed by Aramark are also members of our community. Food workers should be able to afford to comfortably support their families — to buy healthy food, to pay their bills, and go to the doctor whenever they need to,” the petition reads.
According to the university’s tax forms, Loyola paid Aramark $22,963,203 during the 2019-2020 school year to run food services at the university, The Phoenix reported.
The Phoenix found more than 60% of those employed by Loyola Dining live on the South and West sides of the city, which means commutes to Loyola can total more than two hours, only increasing the burden of full-time employment at the university.
Aramark hasn’t been without its scandals both at Loyola and nationwide. In 2018 the company faced backlash for insensitive meals served at Loyola which were supposed to celebrate Black History Month. In April 2021, the Student Government of Loyola Chicago (SGLC) passed legislation calling for the university to sever its relationship with Aramark.
Beyond scandals at Loyola, Aramark profits from the prison industrial complex, and has been accused of serving rotten and maggot-infested food to inmates, The Denver Post reported.
The Phoenix reported University President Jo Ann Rooney earns $787,883 annually — 46 times the $17,078 Aramark employees are earning on average.
UNITE HERE Local 1 appealed to the university’s proclaimed Jesuit mission at the start of their report, quoting the “Roots of our Mission” which is listed on Loyola’s website.
“Our Ignatian heritage is the living legacy of Ignatius Loyola. It is a rich heritage of faith, seeking God in everyday life; a profound commitment to the poor and to issues of social responsibility and justice,” the university mission statement reads. “Ignatius believed that it is imperative to act upon what is learned – to use our values in service to humanity. We are called to make a difference as persons for others.”
Plaza echoed these sentiments, and he said that involved students take the university’s mission statement very seriously.
“We feel strongly that our school is not doing enough for their workers, despite their mission to bring positive change to society,” he said. “ Therefore, especially in the spirit of our mission to use our values in service to humanity, we stand firmly on the side of the workers and strongly encourage everyone else in our community to do the same.”