Sodexo food service employees from five major convention centers across the country have announced demands for improving working conditions and threatened that failure to meet the demands could result in strikes. 

Food service workers at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center have partnered with Unite Here Local 23 in New Orleans to give Sodexo a list of demands before the company’s contract renewal on Dec. 31. The demands include wage increases, affordable health care, secure retirement pensions, and fair scheduling. They are joining Sodexo employees from convention centers across the country in the top five tourism markets including Las Vegas, Sacramento, California, Orlando, Florida, and Detroit, in demanding better working conditions. 

In response to questions about the employees’ complaints, Paul W. Pettas, vice president for brand and communications at Sodexo, issued a statement on Wednesday (Nov. 23), saying that the company is trying to forge “a path forward” in the process.

“Accordingly, we continue to engage in good faith during ongoing CBA negotiations, in a sincere attempt to reach a fair and competitive set of long-term agreements in a timely manner,” the statement said. “Bargaining sessions are scheduled in the weeks ahead, and we look forward to continuing to offer attractive wages and conditions, while ensuring labor competitivity for our clients and consumers.”

New Orleans is one of the top convention and tourism cities in the nation. With Covid-19 gathering restrictions a thing of the past, the New Orleans’ meetings and events industry is projected to return to pre-pandemic tourism numbers, with the potential to surpass them in 2023. The Morial Convention Center is preparing to enter its busiest season in hosting Mardi Gras balls in addition to conferences and events related to the popular Essence Music Festival. 

The New Orleans convention center, the sixth largest in the nation, employs 92 people through Sodexo as of August of this year, down 50% from the 186 workers on staff in February 2020 before the pandemic. According to a press release issued by Unite Here, 53% of kitchen jobs, 50% of bar jobs, and 47% of quick-service jobs were lost between February 2020 and August 2022. 

At a press conference held on Monday (Nov. 21), Unite Here noted that Black Sodexo workers were more likely to lose their jobs in the downsizing. The organization found that 57% of Black employees lost their jobs, compared to 51% of their white counterparts. 

With fewer persons on staff, those who remain are expected to do “more work with less help,” and have not been adequately compensated for the additional labor according to Unite Here national president D. Taylor. Taylor said that nationally, 84% of surveyed convention center workers reported that they struggled to cover necessities such as rent, food, or transportation.  

“New Orleans hospitality workers are struggling, Sodexo convention center workers are struggling,” Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of Unite Here Local 23, said. “Too many workers are working multiple jobs just to survive.” 

Wanoneica Arnold, a Sodexo cook at the Morial Convention Center, is one of the Sodexo workers who said she is struggling to make ends meet. She just wants basic working conditions.

“If I got a raise, I could afford an apartment,” Arnold said. “I’ve developed hypertension and I’ve lost a tooth since I started working for Sodexo. I want to see fair pay, retirement, medical, dental, and vision, medical time off and raises across the board.” 

The average hourly wage for convention center employees in the top tourism markets was $11.77 an hour in February 2020, increasing to $12.44 an hour by August 2022. The lowest non-tipped wage at Morial Convention Center is $13.25 an hour.  According to MIT’s living wage calculator, the living wage for an adult with no children in the city of New Orleans is $16.79 an hour. 

Sodexo workers in other markets have already started to take action on their demands. In Orlando, the Orange County Convention Center workers voted unanimously last week to authorize a strike. Sodexo’s contract is due to expire at the end of the month, said Jeremy Haicken, president of Unite Here’s Florida chapter.  If the OCCC employees’ demands are not addressed in the contract renewal, they intend to strike, he said. According to Haicken, this would be the first strike in Orlando in more than 20 years. 

Efforts to organize New Orleans Sodexo employees extend beyond the Morial Convention Center. Dining hall employees at Loyola University New Orleans partnered with the Catholic Labor Network at the beginning of the fall semester to demand increased wages and lower health care costs. 

In 2011, Sodexo employees at Tulane University conducted a walkout and two-day strike. These actions were spurred by allegations of Sodexo owing more than $20,000 in unpaid overtime wages and interfering with employees’ right to unionize. The dispute made its way to court, where the case was eventually dismissed. 

“Tourism is the heart of New Orleans and Sodexo can play a crucial role in our city by stepping up and showing that a hospitality job … can be enough,” Patrick-Cooper said. 

Note: This story has been updated with a comment from Sodexo.

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Karli Winfrey graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from Loyola University. With a background in the New Orleans hospitality industry, Winfrey has first-hand experience with grassroots...