Compass Food Service Workers at Northwestern University rally for fair wages. (RoundTable photo)

Veronica Reyes, an Evanston resident, has worked as a cashier and on the food service line at Northwestern University for 11 years.

She says she values her job and especially her co-workers and students, whom she calls “family.”

But at her $14.05-an-hour salary she has barely been able to keep up with expenses – a situation that became even worse when she was laid off for a time during the pandemic.

“It was terrible,” she said.

At the start of the pandemic, her unemployment payments were very low, she said.

“So I had to put all my electricity bills, my utility bills, everything in credit cards,” she said. “So I have a high debt in credit cards because of this.”

Now back at work, she joined other Northwestern food service and conference center workers who work for the Compass Group, at Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue June 3 in a march to demand fair wages for every worker back on the job. 

Cooks, cashiers and housekeepers who survived the COVID-19 pandemic called on the Compass Group to do better.

Melvin Davis, one of the participants in the June 3 rally, started as a dishwasher in 2008, and worked his way up to grill cook, and now driver.

He lives in the western suburbs because of lower costs and makes about a 45-minute drive to his job in the morning.

“I love my job, but $14.75 isn’t enough for me, my daughter and my son” he said. “This is why I’m here marching, and this is why in many other countries workers are here to get a decent amount of a raise.”

UNITE HERE Local 1, which organized the march, represents approximately 400 Compass food service and conference center workers on campus.

The starting rate for Compass cafeteria cooks at Northwestern is $14.45 per hour, union representative Elliott Mallen said in a release. The average wage of Compass workers at Northwestern covered by Local 1 labor contracts was $15.48 per hour in the first quarter of 2021, he said.

Compass workers at Northwestern have not received a raise since 2019, the union said.

According to one study, a single adult in Cook County would need to earn $$28.58-an-hour to support themselves and one child, the Union maintained.

In 2018, the University switched its food service from Sodexo and Aramark to Compass Group North America, the Daily Northwestern, the student paper reported then.

Workers expressed concern at the time whether Compass would take over the contract with UNITE HERE Local 1, the paper reported.

Mr. Mallen said that the union has been attempting to reach a new agreement with Compass since the previous contract expired in 2019. 

Meredith Rosenberg, a spokesperson for Compass, said in an email June 3 that Compass “continues to honor the wages along with the other terms and conditions of employment that UNITE HERE Local 1 negotiated with the prior dining vendors. 

“For over two years, we have attempted to negotiate with Local 1 to reach a new agreement for our associates,” she said. “These negotiations need to take place at the bargaining table.  We recently offered to meet with Local 1 on 24 dates during the next two months, but the Union rejected all of those dates.  We hope that Local 1 will return to the bargaining table so we can reach a fair and equitable agreement for our associates.”

In the meantime, some Northwestern students have provided key support to the employees, not only joining in the march but helping workers out financially during the pandemic.

Patricia Janick, a senior at the school, said students are fighting for better wages and better working conditions for the workers, some of whom went through the pandemic without health insurance.

The students group, Students Organizing for Labor Rights, had raised more than $80,000 to distribute to the service workers – money, she maintained, “that the school should have been paying the workers, and which came from the pockets of students, which is absolutely disgraceful.”

Northwestern officials could not be reached for a comment about the situation June 3.

Students, many away from home, forge close relationships with the employees, Ms. Janick said.

“The workers really provide a sense of community on campus, more so sometimes than even other students do. They’re there every day, they’re so consistent,” she said.

Some workers like Ms. Reyes have had students over for meals and even provided lodging when the students were unable to go home during breaks.

“They literally feed us,” Ms. Janick said. “And we could not ask for better workers, like they’re all so lovely and kind.”

Another Evanston resident, Elizabeth Arreguin has been working as a housekeeper at Northwestern for 20 years.

Her salary has remained the same while “every day we have to pay for parking, more rent, gasoline.”

“And I need my insurance, especially now because if I’m sick or my husband is sick, how can I pay the bills?” She said, standing with the marchers outside the Kellogg School of Management Global Hub where some of them work.

She said she was also at the rally in behalf of her co-workers, some who were laid off during the pandemic and, now back on the job, are working reduced hours.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.