‘We’re on the front lines’: Gordon Commons workers feed campus amid the pandemic

From left to right, Deece workers Isatu Rashid, Andrea Hall and Dhurata Sullolari. Courtesy of Grace Rousell.

The first weeks of the pandemic were terrifying for Isatu Rashid. The Gordon Commons Chef Helper and other dining staff returned to work after spring break to feed remaining on-campus students. Dining staff did their best to social distance, but working in close quarters came with uncertainties. Rashid could not help but wonder: What did her coworkers’ commutes look like?

That collective fear transformed her tight-knit work culture into one of isolation. “We used to sit down to have lunch together, but we didn’t do that when we came back. Everybody was in their little corner,” she said. Exchanging her daily hugs and handshakes with students for curt delivery of packaged food was most painful. Thankfully, the fall semester has reunited students and dining staff such as Rashid. But this reunion has been a double-edged sword.

Much has changed in Gordon Commons. This has included compulsory mask wearing, exclusively takeout dining and signs to enforce social distancing. What has not changed is the natural ebb and flow of foot traffic in a day. Of the 2,466 students enrolled this semester, a total of 2,105 are on campus. The usual dinner rush still runs between 6 and 7 p.m. Long lines sometimes span the building. 

In these ways, dining staff have arguably the most human contact out of all campus workers in the work week. “We’re on the front lines. Yes we’re wearing masks and we’ve got the barriers [at the stations], but we’re still on the frontlines,” said Assistant Chef and local Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chapter Vice President Cathy Bradford.

The early weeks of Vassar’s phased move-in plan were frightening for Kitchen Worker Dhurata Sulollari. The rush of packaging food for long lines of hungry but patient students has helped her overcome that fear: “It is scary, but sometimes when it gets busy, you forget because you have to keep going and keep working.”

Mask-wearing protocols have also made working in a bustling, high-heat kitchen difficult. “It’s very, very hot in the kitchen. Sometimes you have to go outside, remove your mask and take some fresh air,” said Rashid.

The end of the workday is always a time to rest, but the threat of the virus has also changed dining staff’s home lives. Sullolari’s youngest son used to run to kiss her when she came home. “I had to stop him because it’s scary, you know, I have to change out of my work clothes and take a shower. Now he’s learned that things have had to change,” she said.

Operation Assistant Andrea Hall has not been able to visit her mother who lives in Brooklyn since Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered strict lockdowns. “We just communicated on the phone and through FaceTime. When things started to die down [my sister and I] did go there separately,” she said. Their visits are quick. They drop off supplies, ask how their mother is doing and rush out without a touch. 

Rashid and her husband have physically distanced themselves from each other and their loved ones. “We don’t get that close interaction like we used to,” she said. “We don’t allow any visitors at home and we don’t visit anyone. [But] I have to go to work because that is where I’m getting my daily bread.”

Some workers believe things could be worse. The College’s testing and isolation plans, which have resulted in zero on-campus cases, and students and staff following safety protocols have brought a greater sense of security among the staff. Hall contrasts this with what she’s heard about other schools. “Compared to what you hear on the news, I think we as a school are working as a team. Students and staff are working together,” she said.

Vassar had anticipated entering Phase Three of the reopening plan on September 26. This would have entailed resuming indoor dining in Gordon Commons and at the Retreat. Vice President for Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll said that the College has postponed those plans.

“The senior team has evaluated the conditions and while the campus is doing well, we do not yet feel conditions are right to begin Phase Three,” she said. “The initial dates noted for the phases were estimates, and we believe that a measured approach to changes in protocols is best.”

When the time comes, students can reserve a seat and time slot to eat in Gordon Commons using the Waitwhile app. These time slots will include collecting food and eating at seats distanced six feet. Students will not be able to move seats out of this distance. They will also be asked to clear and sanitize their dining area before leaving. Those without reservations can only enter to pick up their food and exit. Associate Dean of the College for Campus Activities Teresa Quinn said that each hour can accommodate 254 people, but that number will be reduced to 230 so that workers can go on break. Seating times, zones and capacities for every hour are as follows:

  • Top of the hour: Third floor (22 seats), second floor (64 seats)
  • 15 min past the hour: Zone A in main café (64 people)
  • 30 min past the hour: Zone B in main café (100 people)

Every person in a zone will be asked to leave so that workers can sanitize before the next group arrives.

Limited seating will also return to the College Center South Atrium area. Each table will only have one seat, with each distanced six feet from each other. Students will not be able to move these seats and will have to clear and sanitize their area before they leave. There will not be seating in the North Atrium.

While workers commend the College for its COVID-19 testing and response system, any indoor dining in Gordon Commons has its risks. “I know some of the students are taking precautions, but I know that some of them are not social distancing,” said Rashid. “I don’t know where they’ve been. It’s hard to control the freedom of a person.”

Bradford noted that staff are not always behind the food stations’ clear barriers. “It’s not like there’s a flat glass covering over our heads. [And] we still gotta go out in the open and around the students to get things. Now that they’re opening [indoor seating] back up, how safe is that gonna be?” she wondered.

If all goes well for Vassar, the campus community will make it to Nov. 20 and complete the rest of the semester online. 

Bradford shared that SEIU-represented employees returned to work in the fall without being told the state of their jobs for the semester’s digital home stretch. The union’s main office sent the College a letter Friday detailing these frustrations and demanding transparency regarding these plans.

Students have also taken to championing their cause through the Student-Labor Dialogue. Student members Mae Boda and Parvaneh Jefferson shared that the group’s focus will be multi-fold this semester. They are demanding transparency from administration and greater worker involvement in decision-making processes regarding Bon Appétit contract renegotiations and post-November compensation. They will also collect union grievances, with the goal of ending outsourcing, and support Cathy Bradford in her transition to president of the SEIU chapter.

Regarding work after Nov. 20, Duga-Carroll shared in an emailed statement that some students would remain on campus. This would require some employees to continue working through the remaining semester.

“These include some international students, students for whom it is unsafe to return to their homes as well as students for whom Vassar is their home address,” she said. “Given the very limited number of students that will remain on campus, this will require some additional services and staff through the end of the semester.” This will include staff in dining, facilities and other departments. The College does not have plans for additional furloughs at this time.

Duga-Carroll also shared that full-time dining employees will be paid through the end of November and December based on their normal work schedule during this time frame. Exact plans, task assignments and work schedules are to be determined. If an outbreak occurs on campus before the end of the semester, the College will reassess these plans.

Plans for January are pending. “The first few weeks in January are typically quiet at the College, with few dining employees scheduled to work. Therefore, we will review plans for January when we have more information and the timeline for the spring semester,” said Duga-Carroll.

For now, whether they are braving campus for their jobs or working alongside students, Bradford said that workers’ passions lie with students: “We love the students. That’s number one, and that’s always been a number one for us.”

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