Aramark funds higher wages, staffing in prisons

Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Lansing — Private contractor Aramark Correctional Services has agreed to pay for increased wages, staffing levels and training for its workers to address serious problems with its handling of the state prison food contract, Gov. Rick Snyder's new overseer said Wednesday.

"The performance needs to be much better," said Ed Buss, a former corrections director in Indiana and Florida hired to help end incidents ranging from food shortages to sex with inmates and an Aramark worker allegedly trying to set up a contract killing. Buss said the company's performance, while getting better, "isn't improving at the rate it should."

He said Aramark, also Indiana's prison food contractor, had similar startup problems there, but there weren't as many and they weren't as serious as in Michigan.

Aramark, the food contractor for Michigan’s prison system, has consistently made headlines this year.

Buss, who's being paid out of $200,000 in state fines against Aramark, announced the following steps he believes will improve the company's performance on its three-year $145 million state contract:

■Boosting prison food service staffing to 120 percent of the necessary level to counteract a high rate of turnover among Aramark prison food workers. Staffing is at 394 now and will reach 409 by week's end, Buss said. The ultimate goal is 449 Aramark food workers, compared with 370 publicly employed prison food workers prior to the Aramark deal, said Department of Management and Budget spokesman Caleb Buhs.

■As much as a $2 increase in beginning pay for Aramark workers in "specific regions of the state based on market wage analysis," according to Buhs. The $2 increase was two weeks ago in the Upper Peninsula, where it's been hard to fill job openings, Buhs said. "Other adjustments made throughout the state will vary depending on the market," he added. Buss said that where increases occurred, the starting pay now ranges from $12.50 to $13 an hour.

■Intensified training to stem the spiral of incidents that caused 112 Aramark workers to be banned from state prisons since the contract began in December. There will be better training, too, in managing and planning for supplies by prison food service directors.

Buss said Aramark agreed to cover full costs of these changes. He said Aramark's added expense could exceed the $14 million a year the state expects to save from its three-year outsourced food service deal.

The new policies in Michigan prisons are unique for Phildelphia-based Aramark, which has jail food service contracts elsewhere in Michigan and prison or jail agreements in several other states, too, Buss said.

The director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, which represents corrections officers who police the prisons, said added training and staffing are helpful but may not improve the culture among Aramark workers.

MCO's Mel Grieshaber said the 370 prison food workers laid off because of the privatization move were paid more than Aramark workers, even after the raises. While another union represented the laid-off state workers, Grieshaber said he's sure they were paid at least $18 to $20 an hour.

"For publicly employed workers in Corrections or any other department, it's a career," he said. "It's just a job for Aramark workers, and it's a job in the most dangerous, stressful environment you can have."

Grieshaber said it's telling that the food service contractor's workers have a high turnover rate, whereas the rate was as low as 4 percent among the former public employees.

"I don't know how raising wages or any of that will address the apparent low moral character of the (Aramark) workforce," he added. "The public food service workers understood all that; they had been through (training) modules on over-familiarity and prisoner manipulation."

But Buss said 10 months into the contract, Aramark's performance is improving. He said four Aramark workers were involved in violations that led to their dismissal from August through mid-September, compared with 19 in July alone.

Grieshaber countered that he's aware of four additional incidents since September 19— three involving relationships with inmates and one involving the firing of a worker for trying to arrange the beating of an inmate.

Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan said a total of seven Aramark workers lost their prison food jobs during September — five for over-familiarity with inmates, one for drug smuggling and one for a workplace safety violation.

In one of the July incidents, an Aramark employee was dismissed for allegedly trying to hire a Chippewa Correctional Facility inmate to arrange the killing of an inmate at another prison. Chippewa is at Kincheloe in the eastern Upper Peninsula.

The ex-Aramark worker was arrested in September and Attorney General Bill Schuette announced he was looking into that case. Marlan said the prisoner, who informed on the Aramark worker, hasn't faced disciplinary action because it appears he didn't initiate the proposed hit job.

Buss also said he is working with Aramark to set up a training and apprenticeship program that can lead to post-prison jobs for inmates hired to work in correctional facility kitchens.

And he said the Department of Management and Budget, where he works as contract overseer, will have three new monitors to assist him. Two will work with him in Lansing and a third is posted at the state prison in Marquette in the UP.

Buss said the new monitors will be among 10 monitors included in the original Aramark contract and won't be an added expense for the state.

GHeinlein@detroitnews.com

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