DEL MAR — If attendance numbers are any indication, KAABOO Del Mar has grown increasingly popular since its debut in 2015.
But that’s not necessarily the case for the food and beverage employees who worked the three-day entertainment and arts festival at the Del Mar Fairgrounds the previous two years.
Since 1990, Premier Food Services has provided bartenders, wait staff and other hospitality-related workers for the state-owned facility, which is governed by the 22nd District Agricultural Association.
Many Premier employees are represented by the San Diego County Hotel and Food Service Workers’ Local 30.
About a dozen members attended a July 13 meeting of the 22nd DAA to share concerns they have about KAABOO organizers not using Premier for next month’s event.
“Our greatest assets here are our people,” fairgrounds General Manager Tim Fennell said, adding that while KAABOO is not obligated to use Premier, the organizers are contractually required to give its employees first rights to those jobs.
“Once (Premier employees) fill the jobs then they (KAABOO) will open them up to others,” Fennell said.
Union members said their concern is that since they won’t be working for Premier, those hours will not count under the union contract, which could affect their ability to qualify for health benefits.
“We depend on those hours for insurance,” one worker said. “Many of us are really, really scared.”
Doris Schmidtberger, a spokeswoman for the group that attended the meeting, said Premier employees heard about the decision from their union representative rather than anyone associated with the fairgrounds or KAABOO.
“Some of us have been working here for 20 years,” she said. “It’s a great job. We like it. … But they pulled the rug out from under us.”
Charles Yip, a union field representative, said he believes the decision was financial.
“Cutting Premier off is a way for them to make more money,” he said, adding that the hourly wage paid by other companies is not necessarily less than what Premier pays.
Yip said there were unanswered questions about how servers will be paid for catered events, during which workers are generally compensated by a percentage of the overall bill rather than individual tips.
Additionally, Premier employees served the crews and other workers.
Fennell disagreed with Yip’s assessment. He said KAABOO organizers indicated to him they “wanted to try something new.”
“They’ve only been doing this for two years so it’s a learning curve,” Fennell said. “They have to make money like everybody else. But I don’t think that’s the case.”
He said even if it were, “people have to look at the big picture.”
“The fair, a number of years ago, was 20 days,” he said. “Then it went to 22 and then to … 26. Go back a few more years when we were doing 100 events a year. Now we’re doing 300.
“KAABOO was not here two years ago,” Fennell added. “If we want to have KAABOO here next year, they have to be financially successful. So you can’t look at the short term. If working KAABOO nonunion doesn’t give them credit toward their benefits, I don’t know.
“But the fact of the matter is, they’re still going to be able to work and in the big picture, KAABOO will be here five, six … 10 years down the road and that gives everybody the opportunity to work.”
Joshua Goodman, a KAABOO spokesman, said the goal of the event is “to ensure an outstanding guest experience.”
“That’s why we made the decision to go with a nationally renowned food and beverage concessionaire that specializes in high volume live events and festivals,” he stated in an email. “This was done in full compliance with the terms of the agreement with the 22nd DAA and Premier for this buyout.
“KAABOO has agreed to offer Premier service professionals employment at union wages,” he added. “Premier received a $150,000 buyout as part of this arrangement.”
Goodman said a two-day job fair was held to allow Premier workers to apply exclusively for open positions online and in person.
“From KAABOO’s perspective, this is cost neutral,” Goodman stated. “It is not a cost savings or designed to increase the event’s profit margin.
“We have absolutely no knowledge of the union benefits program or what the union is providing to their workers,” he added. “This issue was never addressed with KAABOO in any conversations regarding the hiring of their members for KAABOO 2017. If they are not counting these hours (again, paid at union wages and in accordance with a union contract), that is the union’s decision.”
Because the servers spoke during the public comment portion of the fair board meeting, directors couldn’t respond.
Yip said if some of the issues are not worked out and questions are not answered, union members may attend the fair board’s Aug. 8 meeting.
Fennell said there is little board members could do to change the situation since they rarely are involved in contract negotiations.
“The reality of it is, we have a signed contract,” Fennell said. “Under the terms KAABOO doesn’t have to hire Premier. But it says in the contract that the people who work for Premier are getting first rights.”