On any given day, a hungry student walking through the All Campus Dining Center (ACDC) will encounter a number of familiar images: long lines for the salad bar, big tables stocked with condiments and a staff buzzing from one task to the next. Though they all appear to be part of the same process, these staffers actually play several different roles in the dining hall. The work of arranging and preparing the food offered in the dining center is done by kitchen workers, chef helpers, assistant chefs, a head chef and the Aramark managers they report to.
Each individual plays their part to make up the theater of daily campus dining. In the wake of efforts to improve campus operations on an ever changing campus, however, Vassar Administrators are looking to consolidate the system, risking blending together these job descriptions. This interest has sparked grievances in Dec. 2014 against the college by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents the ACDC workers.
Since the recession, the college’s staffing levels have generally decreased. Associate VP for Human Resources Ruth Spencer explained in an emailed statement that the college’s staff size has decreased by 9 percent since peaking at 400 employees in Fall 2012. One primary cause for this decline is the voluntary retirement program, or ‘buyout program’ initiated by the college last December.
In a forum with the VSA on March 2, VP for Finance and Administration Bob Walton detailed the process of this buyout program. Employees with a certain number of years of service were offered a lump sum of money to retire voluntarily. In total, 68 staff members ended up taking the buyout program that ended last December.
The buyout intended to reduce labor costs and help offset the college’s current draw on the endowment. According to Walton at the VSA forum, the college hopes to soon reach a lower spending rate on the endowment while reducing its staff compared to peer institutions.
“I looked at how we spend our money and how other schools spend their money. What we found is that we have a lot more employees in service areas than our peer institutions,” he commented to the VSA.
In an emailed statement, Walton offered additional insight into how Vassar’s staffing compares to its peers after the buyout. In general, the college’s staffing is now near the median among its peers, save for a few supervisory positions in Buildings and Grounds. With cleaning staff, the college is still among the top four schools in our peer group, and with skill trades like carpenters and plumbers we are tied with the most staff per square foot of facilities. With dining, Walton noted that the statistics might not best describe Vassar’s staffing situation.
“The data says we are at the median, but my feeling is that due to many of the special improvements that we need to make in dining, we are slightly understaffed,” he stated.
But not all staff at Vassar buy Walton’s plan. ACDC worker and union representative for SEIU Cathy Bradford believes campus dining is more than slightly understaffed and needs more full time employees.
“We are understaffed because we are still missing spots in the workflow.” said Bradford responding to Walton’s analysis of the staffing situation at the ACDC. “The prep that needs to be done for tomorrow, I don’t have time to do.” she added.
Another issue Bradford expressed has to do with the various tasks ACDC employees complete when working. Before the buyout was finished, there used to be a cook position at the ACDC responsible for short order cooking and recipes at the grill and other tasks. Bradford and numerous other staff hold the position of chef helper, which according to their job description, involves assisting cooks and assistant chefs. When the only remaining cook retired, Vassar eliminated the position.
As Spencer explained, “The cook position was eliminated in ACDC because the person who had been in the cook’s classification was doing the work of a chef helper based on operational need for many years prior to retiring.”
She continued, “Once he retired the cook classification was not needed for the ACDC operation. He was the most senior cook.”
Bradford and numerous other ACDC staff however disagree. They believe that the college had instead incorporated the work involved with being a cook into the chef helper position over time. This is of concern to SEIU because the chef helper position is at a lower pay grade compared to the cook position, and that removing the cook position makes it difficult for chef helpers to fulfill the supportive role written into their job description.
Bradford’s and others’ disagreement over these issues has led to an ongoing grievance between SEIU and Aramark. Grievances are disputes that the union may send to Human Resources to resolve.
According to Bradford, this grievance in particular emerged as a dispute concerning Aramark managers assigning tasks outside of the job descriptions for certain staff. Though it isn’t always clear to a student grabbing a bowl of soup, when a chef helper sorts spoons they are in fact violating their contract. This same grievance extends to a dispute over tasks that demand more time and energy, such as working on the grill alone.
Grievances are processes through which unions can formally express concerns about the policies of the College. They come as a formal action after alternative methods are exhausted. Grievances first come to supervisors at Vassar. If both parties cannot come to an agreement, the grievance will go to arbitration by a third party until resolved. As President of SEIU and building painter Joe Maio explained in an interview, “If we’re not happy with the decision made at the manager’s level, then it goes to HR. And then after HR if we are not happy with the decision we can go to arbitration.”
He continued, “We don’t like going to arbitration, but lately with Walton’s administration it feels we’re being dared to go to arbitration.”
As part of the grievance, Ruth Spencer and HR agreed with SEIU to propose new job descriptions further clarifying the difference between the kitchen worker, chef helper, assistant chef, and head chef positions. “The updated job descriptions reflect the tasks that each classification currently completes. Those classifications that were eliminated in ACDC were no longer needed due to changes in operations some time ago.” she told us. On March 23 the union was sent the new job descriptions for feedback. These descriptions, among numerous other changes, remove the statement that chef helpers explicitly assist cooks, assistant chefs, and other ACDC staff.
ACDC employee TC Weaver expressed his concern over the job description changes at the dining center. “They’re not eliminating the cook position, they’re actually eliminating the chef helper position,” Weaver explained. “Everything that the cook had to do is just getting tacked on to the chef helper position. Since day one chef helpers have been in fact doing the bulk of the cook’s job.”
Beyond Weaver, other staff have similar sentiments. We spoke with seven different employees who hold the Chef Helper position at the ACDC, all of which criticized the new job descriptions proposed by Aramark and Human Resources as denying that chef helpers go above and beyond their current work since they no longer assist cooks and rarely help assistant chefs. What further complicates this is that before the last cook retired at the ACDC, chef helpers would receive the higher pay of a cook when filling in for the cook’s work on his day off or when home sick. This is despite the work of the cook being according to Spencer the same as what Chef helpers already.
One concern Cathy Bradford expressed to us is that while the ACDC cook has now retired and the position was eliminated during the school year, the summer cook position he worked is still available and being filled by the Retreat’s cook. Spencer responded to our request for comment regarding this, stating that, ”There is only other cook on campus; she is in the Retreat. The person in the Retreat could never work summers because if we used one cook in the summer the [former] ACDC cook would always get the job based on seniority. To my knowledge we never used more than one person in that classification.” However, Brady has noted to us her concern that this contradicts eliminating the cook position in the first place when the summer work at the ACDC is very similar to what chef helpers do during the school year.
Spencer also noted to us that as of publication neither Cathy Bradford nor any other SEIU representatives have yet given direct feedback about the new job descriptions.
SEIU remains hopeful that the grievances will give it a chance to tell Vassar that the work chef helpers do deserves more pay if it incorporates the work of the cook position. One potential solution Bradford described relates to new levels for advancement within the chef helper position. At this time only two levels exist differentiating position. Adding respective positions and different pay would give recognition to employees with decades of experience.
“I think it would be reasonable to increase the pay if [Human Resources] is giving us an expanded job description” says Weaver
With respect to having more levels within the chef helper position to demonstrate the experience and skills gained, Bradford told us, “I think that would be more fair.”
In regards to increasing the levels for the chef helper position, Spencer clarified on the process of setting pay rates. “Normally we do not change the rate for a single classification during negotiations, unless there is a real problem recruiting persons in that classification, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.”
Bradford also believes senior administration should see the work staff do in a given week
“He needs to come over her for one day and be in our shoes,” Bradford said in reference to Bob Walton.
Walton has expressed to us his acknowledgement of concerns coming from staff on campus. In his year and a half on campus, he has held more than 90 small group meetings with staff and administrators. He has also noted specific concerns from staff, stating to us via email, “The types of issues that most commonly are mentioned are the need for more communications about what is going on at Vassar… and [community members] feel slightly out of the information loop.”
On top of the need for further communication, Walton made clear that he understands the concern many have for staffing levels and the expectation to do more with less. He acknowledged the frustration many seem to feel about the rigidity of the system that sets bargaining contracts and restricts work so that some can’t do the work they expect to.
Bradford noted that dining wasn’t always so difficult when working and providing students their meals. “It used to be better here six or seven years ago.” she noted.