Dining During Disaster

The Continued Fight for Dining Worker Protections

Tufts Dining released a statement on the status of dining operations on September 13, less than a week after Tufts University reopened, stating that some longer wait times have occurred due to staff becoming “accustomed to new service styles, procedures, and technology.” This statement, which they posted on their official Facebook, led to an almost immediate negative public response from many dining workers and students. That same afternoon the Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) released a petition outlining six demands that TLC student organizers created in conjunction with dining workers regarding the cultivation of a safe work environment. According to TLC member Micah Kraus, “[D]ining workers told us directly which demands to include.” 

TLC is a student organization that promotes solidarity between students and campus workers, including dining workers, janitors, and adjunct staff. On campus, TLC has been a longstanding and fierce advocate for workers, garnering national attention in 2015 for their five-day hunger strike in opposition to the proposed layoffs of 35 members of the janitorial staff. Gabe Reyes, a member of TLC’s strategy team, said that TLC “collaborate[s] with workers for labor justice and a community where classism and unequal treatment aren’t tolerated.”

Throughout the pandemic, TLC has been working alongside UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents Tufts Dining workers, to fight for summer employment, extended benefits, and full pay during the shuttered spring semester. In response to the fall semester’s unique challenges, TLC is now advocating for increased worker protections, improved working conditions, and health benefits.

Tufts Dining’s statement alleges that workers are still adjusting to the new system, which is in turn causing longer wait times at dining halls, but TLC demands that the attention shift to Tufts’ failure to equip workers with necessary resources during a pandemic. According to Georgia Kay, lead student organizer of TLC, “[M]anagers may have known about the statement [being released], but none of the workers [knew].” Kay said they received a frantic phone call from Zahra Warsame, a Tufts dining worker and union leader who has worked at Tufts since 2005, who was upset about what had been said on their behalf. 

This is not the first time dining workers at Tufts have felt undervalued and unappreciated. A quote from a 2018 Tufts Observer article on the dining staff’s effort to unionize sheds light on this precedent—at the time, Warsame stated that “a lot of people are unnoticed, unappreciated. They put a lot of effort into the work they do, they take pride in the work they do, and they’re dismissed.” 

That dismissal was felt by the dining workers in the Tufts Dining statement, which alleged that “delays have occurred while staff becomes accustomed to new service styles, procedures, and technology.” Kay explained that there are employees, like Warsame, who have worked at Tufts for decades; the statement’s implication that “[the dining hall workers] don’t know how to do their job and need to get accommodated is just false.” However, the Tufts Director of Dining & Business Services, Patti Klos, told the Tufts Observer that “staff” in their September 13 statement referred to the entire team: regular workers, managers, and administrators.

Another continuous and endemic problem for dining employees is understaffing. In 2018 Christine Tringale, a current assistant sous-chef at Hodgdon Food-On-The-Run, told the Observer that she was overworked due to understaffing: “[The] workload has been excessive, and it’s constantly being added on[to].” In a recent interview, Tringale said that Tufts Dining “had vacant positions that needed to be filled before the pandemic.” But now, even with extended hours of service due to the pandemic, those vacant positions have still not been filled. In fact, according to Tringale, “They’ve been taken down and not reposted.” However, Klos stated via email that Tufts Dining has filled “5 of our 11 vacancies, and are in the final stages of filling about 6 more.”

Though negotiations with the administration have resulted in improvements regarding wages and benefits, this long-term issue at Tufts has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, TLC demands that Tufts either expedite hiring processes for bargaining workers or ensure that their new takeout operating system matches the current capacity of dining workers. According to Kay, “[Dewick] is incredibly understaffed and the dining workers—people who are 50, 60 years old—are regularly pulling doubles.” 

In the 63-page Tufts COVID-related Fall 2020 opening plan, only two subheaders, titled “Enhanced Cleaning” and “Dining Worker Safety,” specifically address these concerns, stating that the University “cares deeply about [their] team and works to facilitate everyone’s safety” and that guidelines for protecting the safety of dining staff would be available. On the Tufts COVID website for faculty, staff, and researchers, Tufts states that, like students, residential life, dining, and custodial staff are required to be tested twice a week. 

Students and workers at the Medford-Somerville campus share a single testing site at 62R Talbot Ave, leading to additional issues. Although there is a testing schedule, sometimes workers will “have to go back because the line is so long…or people won’t come back to work for an hour,” according to Tringale. TLC demands that employees be provided with “adequate COVID-19 testing.” Other TLC demands ask that workers be given appropriate personal protective equipment, specific COVID-19 safety training, drop-off locations to enable social distancing, appropriate sick time, family/medical leave, and health benefits.

On September 22, the Tufts Labor Coalition stated that Hodgdon management tried to obstruct several employees from leaving the building after receiving word that a fellow worker had come into contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19. According to the post, “[m]anagement tried to convince workers to stay and clean (which is not part of their jobs) instead of keeping themselves safe.” This incident is emblematic of the greater risks dining workers face and underscores the need for both increased safety measures and accessibility for dining workers. 

Safety measures go beyond physical protections and testing—many of the Tufts COVID-19 resources are accessible only via smartphone and in English. Consequently, the last TLC demand asks Tufts to invest in language translations for all COVID-19-related information online to make it accessible for those dining workers who do not speak English as their primary language or have access to a phone to use Tufts applications. Tringale commented that COVID-19 regulations such as the mobile application and social distancing signs are inaccessible—“not everybody [receives] information in their own language,” pointing out that “[the dining staff] is very diverse.”

Kay and Reyes maintained that TLC will sustain pressure if the administration does not respond soon. Last spring, hundreds of dining workers and students staged a successful walk-out demonstration for fair contracts, and Kay said TLC would do the same if their demands are not met this time around, envisioning “direct actions, circulating petitions, a student walk-out, a workers’ strike—all of that [being] on the table.” 

According to TLC, the problem is clear. Kay said, “[Tufts] makes it seem like everything is great to appease students, but they’re offering all these services they can’t follow through on, and, in doing that, are exploiting workers.” Further, Reyes emphasized that “the administration actively and passively works to hide the labor that Tufts workers do. TLC tries to disrupt that trend and make it clear to the university…that our comfort and safety on campus cannot and will not be at the expense of worker comfort and safety.”