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School contractor faces fire at hearing
By Jameel Naqvi | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/28/2008 12:11 AM

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Aramark, the contractor that cleans and feeds dozens of suburban schools, was in the hot seat Thursday.

The Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee held a hearing in Chicago on a litany of complaints against Aramark from workers, parents and union officials.

The Philadelphia-based company did not attend the hearing -- missing a chance to respond to a nationwide campaign to unionize Aramark workers and expose the firm's alleged abuses.

But an Aramark spokeswoman said the contractor was not invited to the hearing and only found out about it 24 hours earlier.

"We found out about it from a third party," Aramark spokeswoman Kristine Grow said. "We were not given an opportunity to respond to the accusations."

Thursday's hearing focused on a report released this month by the Service Employees' International Union, which is trying to add 100,000 Aramark workers nationwide to its membership rolls and 2,000 in the Chicago area alone.

The report, titled "Failing Grade: How Outsourcing Vital School Services to Aramark Corp. is Shortchanging Illinois Kids," alleges Aramark pays low wages, provides few benefits and does not adequately clean schools or feed suburban schoolchildren.

Workers and parents from two suburban school districts highlighted in the report -- Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300 and Lake Zurich Unit District 95 -- testified Thursday.

Sheri Meehan, a lunchroom employee at Meadowdale Elementary School in District 300, said most of her equipment has been fixed since she initially complained. But kids, she said, still aren't getting enough healthy food.

Gustavo Gomez, a janitor in District 95, said Aramark endangered his health by having janitors clean up a mold problem at Whitney Elementary School without providing proper safety equipment.

Grow said Aramark supports workers' right to organize but that many of the allegations made at Thursday's hearing were unfounded or exaggerated.

She also said the union was unfairly placing the blame for the mold problem in District 95 on Aramark. Grow said the heavy rains of August 2007 caused the mold to form.

"It was that flooding that led to … the very heavy mold," Grow said. "They're insinuating that the black mold was because of Aramark. That's completely not true."