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Last Sunday (07/20/14) on his superb HBO show, Last Week Tonight, John Oliver treated us to a look at America's Broken Prison System.  If you haven't seen this piece, it's worth the 17+ minutes.  Mainly, the piece focused on why we have many more people in prison than any other country.  Due to these high populations, we've had to look at ways to reduce costs, mostly through privatization of certain prison services.

It was during this part of the piece regarding privatization that Oliver brought up Aramark, one of the companies providing meals to the prison population once it's been privatized.  Of course, I knew Aramark was a private prison food provider.  That fact is hard to miss in Michigan, as this is one of states where the infamous maggoty meals were served to prisoners.

I also worked for Aramark for about a year and a half, and in that time, I learned a lot about how the company operates.  For a company that has been named among the world's most ethical companies, I can tell you it sure didn't feel that was when I was working there.  Follow me below for more details.

Aramark is a large company that is really made up of three smaller companies, each specializing in a different area, operating under the Aramark umbrella.  The three areas consist of the Food, Facilities and Uniforms.

The Food Services and Refreshments Aramark can be found in many places: colleges, hospitals, sports venues, schools, special events, and of course, prisons.  The quality of the food obviously varies, as the food you receive at a ball park catered by Aramark is vastly better than the food one would receive in a prison catered by Aramark.  The foods division of Aramark also provided the catering to the athletes and coaches for the last 16 Olympic Games.

Facilities Management Aramark handles all the maintenance for properties, found in many of the same industries as the food wing.  It basically handles the routine tasks like landscaping, custodial, housekeeping, etc.

The final division is the Uniforms Aramark.  This is the division I'm most familiar with, as this is the one I worked in.  Most people experience Aramark Uniform or a company like them (Cintas, Unifirst) at one point.  They either wear a uniform rented from them, or they use towels or rags laundered by them.  Those mats that are right inside the doors at most stores?  Probably owned and maintained by a company like Aramark.  

I started with Aramark thinking that things operated like other industries.  I can tell you, it doesn't.  The first thing I thought strange were the length of the contracts.  The verbiage built into the contract calls for a 60 month contract.  During this time, Aramark is entitled to increase your rates every year by about 6% on average.

Think increasing your rates 6% every year should be enough?  Aramark doesn't.  The contract also states Aramark can raise your prices at any time, so long as they inform you in writing. You would then have 5 days to decline the increase, called an off-cycle increase because it's not your annual, planned increase.  That sounds fair until you realize that Aramark will raise your rates 20% and then inform you on the invoice that's left when they perform the service. The A/P clerk or owner of a small business may not even look closely at that invoice until 5 days later, when it's already too late to decline the price increase.  What's wrong with sending a letter?  More people would turn down the increase, and Aramark can't have that.

And why do I specify small business as the ones getting the increases?  Because most national businesses have very sweet national contracts with a specific provider.  Usually these contracts include no price increases, not even a nominal increase annually, as long as every branch uses Aramark.  So, when Aramark decides they need to increase their revenue by X amount, all of the increases come from the 'regular Joe' companies, while the national companies, like Walmart, keep their already low prices intact.  

Now for the really sickening part about these off-cycle price increases: the frequency.  In the time I was with Aramark, which was roughly 18 months, Aramark instituted five off-cycle price increases.  That's approximately one increase every three-and-a-half months.  I think that's even more than Comcast raises my cable bill.  I saw customers' bills increase by more than 100% while I was there, each increase compounding the next.  I saw service charges go from $20 to $50 in 18 months.

Most people would switch to a different company.  Good luck.  This price increase obsession appears to be an industry mentality.  Many times, the justification for raising our prices was that Cintas (or Unifirst, or whoever) had just raised theirs.  It seems like everyone was in league together to suck as much money from their customers as possible.  And, if you break your contract early, Aramark will file breach of contract charges for the expected loss of the remaining contract.

Aramark's labor practices have been brought into question before, with scandals ranging from not paying employees for hours worked, to firing employees who dare point out unsanitary food conditions.  I can tell you in my area, salaried employees were treated better than hourly employees and office employees were treated far better than production employees.  Union plants seem to provide infinitely better benefits than non-union, which is what you'd expect. Aramark does everything in its power to do away with unions.

So, how about those ethics accolades?  I personally witnessed a market center manager (like the CEO of a branch) buy the largest corporate sponsorship of a customer's son's little league in exchange for that company's supplier of the year award.  Sounds ethical, doesn't it?  

In some areas, Aramark does very well.  They really do have a commitment to safety and take accidents very seriously.  I'd hate to be a cynic, but I figure this has more to do with the expense of accidents than it has to with actually caring about the welfare of their employees.  I'm not sure that's much different than any other company, really.  

While I was at Aramark, very little funds were spent on the facilities themselves.  Parking lots were crumbling, employee stairs tilted precariously, and one manager told me not to drink the tap water because the sewer backed up and she didn't trust it.  Some restrooms had standing water half the time or toilets that flushed directly into the wall, not the sewer.  Equipment was old and dated, and was only updated if it stopped functioning, and could be financially proven that it was still needed.  Nothing was ever updated in a proactive way.

I'm not surprised that Aramark would skimp on the meals served to prisoners to make a few extra dollars.  It seems that the dollar is everything at Aramark, and they'll do anything and everything in order to eke out a few more dollars of profit.  Even if that means screwing over their customers, employees or vendors.  I left employ there amicably, gave notice and went elsewhere.  I hold them no ill will, I just didn't like Aramark's business practices and felt dirty every day when I walked out.  Sadly, one manager commented when he found out I gave notice, "Yeah, I knew you wouldn't stick around long.  You have ethics."

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