Dining workers express concerns over changes

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

[This article was corrected with a few adjustments on Sept. 16, 2023.]

In January 2023, Vassar College’s dining service, Bon Appétit Management Company, received an engineer’s report detailing kitchen safety concerns, according to one dining worker who asked to remain anonymous. While staff had submitted reports of the Retreat kitchen’s unsafe ventilation system for two years, operations continued throughout. Over the summer, another report detailed a missing firewall that made the kitchen unsafe in which to cook. According to worker testimonials, the kitchen repairs are yet to begin, reflecting a pattern of cost-cutting.

“I’m not surprised that the kitchen went under, we were overworking it,” a second anonymous longtime dining worker said. They added that the Retreat was built for a capacity of 400 but averaged 1200 customers a day. The overuse of the fryer to meet excess demand led to heat buildup and parts of the fryer melting, the first worker said.

Originally, workers were notified that kitchen repairs would occur over the summer. But as the new school year kicked off, the kitchen was still not repaired and no hot food could be cooked. The Retreat is now closed on weekends, and weekday hours have been moved from 6 p.m. to 4 p.m. Only during a “welcome back” meeting on Aug. 17, were workers notified of schedule and assignment changes. Identical schedules were maintained or adjusted with agreements from those employees who were affected, according to Associate Dean of the College Dennis Macheska, who oversees dining. 

We didn’t know the full scope of the project until a week prior to our communication to students, at which time it was communicated to dining employees,” Macheska explained in a written correspondence to The Miscellany News. “A labor plan then needed to be developed between the dining union and the College before we could communicate an accurate plan to students and employees.”

Without hot food offered at the Retreat, less labor is needed to produce food in the College Center, forcing many workers to move to Gordon Commons. Per the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 200United union contract, full-time dining staff retained their hours. “All that [management] and the College have focused their efforts on at the Retreat has been on cutting costs,” the first worker said. “Not repairing failing infrastructure and reducing labor are the preferred methods of cutting costs.”

Recent dining initiatives allowed for reduced labor costs. The majority of the Retreat’s menu is now outsourced to York Street Food Company in New Jersey, instead of being produced in-house, according to the first worker. 

This is not the first time in recent memory that students have raised dining concerns with Bon Appétit. In 2021, the Vassar College Prison Divestment Campaign called to cut ties with Bon Appétit and its parent company, Compass Group, which was one of the three major food providers in the United States and supplies food in prisons until it made a conscious decision to no longer serve meals in prisons and divested all interest in its US corrections division in 2014. In 2017, a joint student and staff rally at the Gordon Commons called for better working conditions.

Several other universities have taken action against Bon Appétit. In July 2022, students at Johns Hopkins University organized to end the college’s contract with the company over worker treatment concerns. Dining workers at Whittier College walked out to demand better pay and pension plans from Bon Appétit. At Wesleyan University, student-dining workers unionized for higher wages and improved working conditions.

According to Macheska, since 2017, “Neither of the two Retreat management positions were eliminated. With the Late Night shift to Gordon Commons, one of the positions was reallocated from the Retreat to Gordon Commons. The other was never eliminated. It is an unfilled position that is currently posted and we are working to fill.”

Worker benefits have also been impacted by the cost-cutting efforts. “Beginning of last year, they cracked down on people with their spouses or kids on their [health] insurance who were also working and could have insurance through their job,” the second worker said. A $3,000 deductible was necessary for the spouse’s plan, which was unaffordable for the couple. “The College kicked [my spouse] off without any notification and sent a letter after they had already kicked [them] off.” 

Student Labor Dialogue (SLD), an organization that coordinates discussions between students and workers toward better wages, benefits and working conditions, compiled further dining staff testimonials. As of Sept. 12, there are twelve testimonials detailing workers’ grievances and demanding changes from the administration.

“We enjoy our jobs and like to make the students feel at home. We put a smile on our faces and head off to serve the Vassar community daily. Lately, many of us are feeling less and less a part of this community. We feel overworked, overwhelmed and lacking respect from the management teams of both Bon Appétit and Vassar College,” one worker testimonial from SLD stated. Further, daily understaffing results in floors rarely mopped before closing, tables not disinfected regularly and supervisors taking on more responsibilities, they reported.

SLD created an excel sheet for students to add their signatures to stand in solidarity with dining workers. An email template is also attached for students to garner an administrative response from Dean of the College Carlos Alamo and Vice President of Information Technology and Human Resources Carlos Garcia. SLD plans to publish a zine, a non-commercial magazine, detailing the testimonials of dining workers later this semester. 

“I feel like [workers] are afraid to talk to students about [what is] going on, like what I’m doing right now. Nobody’s telling me I can’t talk to students. Any of the employees will have one story to talk about. There is a better chance if [students and workers] are on the same side instead of us screaming into the void,” the second worker said.

Looking ahead to the summer of 2025, union negotiations will occur between the SEIU 200 dining union, the College and Bon Appétit. Previous negotiations extended the existing contract as the College was not able to offer a meaningful raise at the time, according to the second worker. 

“[I want] to get the College’s recognition that this is their fault, that they’ve made mistakes, and [that they] become willing to address students’ concerns [and] SEIU employees’ concerns about outsourcing labor and food,” the first worker said. “Long term they need to address a lack of hiring, stop the intentional short staffing practices, as well as eliminate the factory outsourced, pre-packaged meal program.” 


One Comment

  1. This is such a well written article!

    As the article mentions:
    Without hot food offered at the Retreat, less labor is needed to produce food in the College Center.

    Would it be helpful for Management to replace all hot food on campus with canned or fast food ? Besides the lower cost, it would help reduce trash and any other infrastructure expenses. The saved $$ could be reallocated elsewhere (maybe management bonuses).

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