Sodexo, a national institutional foodservice provider, and operator of retail brands such as Pandini's, has come under fire for some serious safety hazards at New Jersey schools. Sodexo provides food service, grounds keeping and custodial services to 73 New Jersey school districts -- more than any other school contractor.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Sodexo, one of the state's largest school contractors, for nine serious safety hazards that endangered workers and could have harmed students in the South Plainfield School District. The supervisor who alerted OSHA to these dangers has since been pushed out of his job. He filed a complaint with OSHA this week that Sodexo retaliated against him for reporting the hazards.
"I am concerned that Sodexo cut the position of the worker who alerted OSHA to these dangers that could have been life-threatening," said U.S. Representative Rush Holt (NJ-12), who is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee. "It seems to me that Sodexo has failed to meet its obligation to keep New Jersey students safe."
OSHA classified all nine violations it found in South Plainfield as "serious," meaning there was a "substantial probability that death or serious injury could occur from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known."
OSHA cited Sodexo for failing to assure that workers received adequate training, protective equipment and labeling information when using dangerous chemicals. OSHA also cited Sodexo for unsafe storage of flammable and combustible liquids, not guarding live parts of electronic equipment, and requiring workers to operate industrial trucks without testing their ability to do so safety.
"I've been a groundskeeper for 26 years. When I came to Sodexo I was shocked because they were not in compliance with safety regulations," said Brian Barker, who was manager of grounds keeping for Sodexo in South Plainfield. "Finally, I said enough is enough and called OSHA."
Barker says that he called OSHA after Sodexo management ignored his repeated requests to correct the problems. The day he notified his manager that he contacted OSHA, Barker received his first written discipline since he began working for Sodexo in February 2009. Even though he received a promotion last January, Sodexo abruptly eliminated his position after the OSHA citation was issued.
"It's an outrage that Sodexo would discipline and dismiss an employee like Brian Barker who took action to make schools safer for students and workers," said Kevin Brown, NJ State Director of 32BJ SEIU.
OSHA's original penalty against Sodexo for the nine violations was $21,000, but under a proposed settlement agreement the company has to pay $8,100. The average OSHA penalty for a serious violation is $1,000.
With more than 120,000 members in eight states, including 8,500 in New Jersey, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country. It is also one of the fastest growing unions in the state.