Since March, in a national phenomenon colloquially termed “The Great Resignation,” Americans quit their jobs in record numbers, with a high of 4.4 million leaving their positions this past September (Vox, 2021). Vassar has been no exception to this rule, and Dining Services is just one area of the College that has had to spend this semester grappling with newfound challenges in retaining full staffing levels.
The roots of The Great Resignation are numerous but primarily include labor frustrations such as desires for better working conditions and burnout resulting from abnormal working conditions. This phenomenon has forced countless organizations within a slate of industries to reconsider their working models, professional philosophies and compensation packages. Vassar has been working to address its own set of staffing problems.
“We made operational adjustments early in the semester to support staff without impacting student dining platforms. This allowed us to maximize efficiency. Beyond that, we have addressed staffing challenges by hosting multiple job fairs on campus in order to create a larger pool of applicants,” said Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana, elaborating on the flexibility necessary to manage these staffing hurdles.
Luckily, these creative efforts have paid off. “We currently are operating with no full-time vacancies. We have only a few part-time vacancies in dining. Applicants are coming in on a daily basis and we expect [to fill] any part-time vacancies in the near future,” explained Bon Appétit’s Resident District Manager Steve Scardina.
Alamo-Pastrana clarified that due to the higher number of job openings across the service industry, the onus is increasingly on employers to cultivate positive cultures for employees who have many job prospects. The College has worked this year to increase starting wages for Dining workers in order to ensure that employment opportunities remain competitive with the local market. President of Vassar’s chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Cathy Bradford, who students also know as the figure behind the Gordon Commons’ Kosher station, confirmed that the decision to raise starting wages by $2 per hour was an effective means of filling eight of the 11 positions that were recently available.
Although this wage increase is a meaningful step towards building Dining Services’ workforce, Bradford clarified that supporting a positive working environment requires a holistic approach, something that she has been working towards in her capacity as Vassar’s SEIU president and as a leader of the Student/Labor Dialogue. In her time as Vice President—and now President—of the SEIU, she’s worked with a score of different committees, from Building and Grounds to Safety. Making meaningful change has meant everything from ensuring that dining workers have the equipment they need to succeed (for her, that recently meant a new food processor), and making sure that there are ample opportunities for professional training and crucial certification classes. “There’s a lot of good things that have happened here,” she said.
Both Alamo and Bradford stressed their commitments to bringing the Vassar community a high-quality dining experience as Dining Services adapts to staffing changes both now and in the future. “We continue to evaluate possible operational shifts that will allow us to maximize our staffing. However, we want to be sure that we are keeping all of our food platforms open to ensure that students continue to receive the same high-quality food and service that they are accustomed to,” explained Alamo.
As Bradford looked forward on Dining staffing and operations, she expressed hope.
These past two years, which have brought Bradford’s years at Vassar and in political organizing up to 25 and 20, respectively, have been strenuous ones. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has worked—amidst her other initiatives—to ensure that workers receive unemployment benefits and that they have jobs to return to. She has also facilitated loans to workers from the College.
With years of union organizing behind her belt, her work seems to be paying off, too. “This is the first time in an article I actually don’t have anything negative to say!” Bradford joked. At the end of the day, she underscored her appreciation of an administration that has been supportive of an open, constructive dialogue. “That means a lot to me,” she explained, “I’m very grateful they’re working with me. That’s all I ever wanted.”