Cook feuds with UDS

Bryce Haugen

Gary Strafelda said he has a serious beef with his employer, University Dining Services.

Until last month, the Middlebrook Hall cook had served University students for 16 years without incident. But in late October, after he had taken time off from work to take care of his sick children, a “Letter of Interest” from UDS arrived at his Cottage Grove, Minn., home.

“This level of absenteeism may be viewed as excessive,” the letter read. “Failure to show significant and sustained improvement will result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

The four absences the letter cited had legitimate excuses and proper approval, Strafelda said.

Officials from UDS, which is managed by Aramark, a private corporation, denied to comment on Strafelda’s allegations.

“It’s a University of Minnesota human resources issue,” said Larry Weger, director of UDS.

Strafelda and his wife, Rita Strafelda, take turns staying home with their sick children, he said. Gary Strafelda said that on one occasion, he was monitoring his 4-year-old son Zachary Strafelda, who is prone to seizures. Another time, he said, his 13-month-old daughter, Abigail Strafelda, had a dangerously high fever.

“Out of these four instances, only one was actually for me,” said Gary Strafelda, who said that he left work early one day after he suspected he had a hernia.

“To have my job put on the line for taking care of my family – to me that’s harassment,” he said.

Lori-Anne Williams, communications director for University Services said the Office of Human Resources will follow set policy in dealing with the complaint, which includes holding a meeting with the office.

“When somebody is gone a lot from their job, we need to make sure we work it out so the work gets done,” she said. “That’s what the meeting with (human resources) is all about.”

Gary Strafelda said he filed grievances with Teamsters Local 320 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He also called Aramark corporate headquarters to complain, he said.

Employment lawyer Andrea Gesellchen, who works in the Minneapolis-based Bertelson Law Office, said federal labor law allows employees to miss work to take care of dependents.

But “there are a lot of different factors regarding whether (Gary Strafelda’s) leave would qualify,” she said.

Gary Strafelda said he does qualify – and has documentation to prove it. He provided a receipt which indicated he had more than two weeks in unused paid sick leave.

“They’ve cut labor so much, they can’t afford to have people miss work,” Gary Strafelda said.

Rita Strafelda said she thinks her husband is being victimized.

“I personally think that they’re trying to make it an absolutely horrible workplace so he’ll leave,” she said.

She said she has fewer sick days than her husband and is worried what kind of illnesses winter might bring.

“It could get to a point where I’d have to stay home and take time unpaid,” she said.

Gary Strafelda said he has an aunt on the brink of death, but he fears taking time off for the funeral.

He said the decline in his workplace’s atmosphere started when Aramark began managing UDS in the mid-’90s.

“I’ve always enjoyed working at the University of Minnesota, but the morale in food services has gotten so low that sometimes you don’t even look forward to going to work,” he said.