The Plea for Pay: Dining Workers Fight for Summer Wages

For the majority of Tufts dining workers, summer 2021 left them with no work, no unemployment benefits, and, as a result: no pay. Due to their status as “academic year employees,” the dining workers were denied unemployment by the state. This status deemed them technically employed despite a lack of summer hours available at Tufts because of COVID. Since the summer, dining workers, Tufts Labor Coalition members, and community members have been working towards acquiring this lost payment. 

In summer 2020, dining workers were able to collect unemployment due to a state statute that expanded unemployment eligibility because of the pandemic. As summer 2021 neared, many workers assumed the situation would be similar because the pandemic was still limiting Tufts summer work. However, of the 180 dining workers, 130 were not able to receive summer work at Tufts according to The Tufts Daily

The workers were not given much information in advance. According to Tricia O’Brien, a service attendant at Mugar Cafe, on May 12 the dining workers received a letter dated May 3, stating they had “Reasonable Assurance” of returning to their jobs in the 2021 – 2022 academic year, meaning they would not be eligible to collect unemployment from the state. This was four days before their last day of work for the semester

David Boulet-Gercourt, a Tufts junior and a TLC member, spoke on Tufts’ decision to wait until the end of the semester to share this information. “​​There are a lot [fewer] people to mobilize around this issue. So it was strangely convenient that they waited until the last second to let them know that they’re not gonna be able to collect [unemployment],” he said.

Marianne Walles, a community member who is part of local activist organization Somerville Stands Together and co-chair of the Our Revolution Somerville Payment in Lieu of Taxes working group, described Tufts’ relationship with the community: “They don’t communicate well with their community, whether it be the student community, the worker community, or the residential community. They’re just not great at communicating what’s going on.”

In an email to the Tufts Observer, Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations, stated that the decision on whether academic year employees are eligible for unemployment comes down to the state, not Tufts. According to Collins, “With the exception of the summer of 2020, when the state made a one-time, temporary change in light of the pandemic, the state has never considered dining employees to be eligible for unemployment compensation when they go on leave in the summer and know that they will be coming back to work in the fall.” 

Pre-pandemic, the majority of dining workers were able to continue working at the university during the summer because of in-person programs and events. The Campus Center, Central Culinary Services, Tufts Catering, Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center, Kindlevan Café, and Tower Café all previously operated in some capacity. In summer 2021, only Dewick was operational. 

This July, TLC hosted a rally in front of Dewick in support of the dining workers. The rally was attended by workers, students, faculty, elected officials, political candidates, and community members. 

Walles assisted with outreach to the surrounding community. She said, “We know the high cost of living in [these] areas and going without income, especially after the pandemic… I think for the community, it’s about Tufts being more accountable, not only to their students and their workers, but also to the community members.”

Collins wrote: “The University pays its staff, including dining employees, well and equitably for the work they perform.” According to Collins, there were no widespread layoffs, salary reductions, or benefit cuts for the dining workers.  

The lack of summer pay has had a significant impact on the lives of dining workers. O’Brien explained that for some workers, multiple members of their family are employed by Tufts Dining and rely on Tufts for a large portion of their household income. Meanwhile, dining workers continued incurring food, rent, and childcare costs. 

“A lot of [dining workers] had to use all their savings. A lot of them had to use their credit cards to get by to make payments on things,” O’Brien said. “You know, thank god the children are back in school because a lot of them had to cut down on food because they didn’t have the extra money.”

O’Brien has been with Tufts Dining for 32 years, during which she has seen the work culture shift dramatically. She said, “It’s very different from when I started working, a lot different. Before it used to be like a family, and now it’s just terrible.” O’Brien also noted, “I don’t want to attack anybody. I just want the employees to be treated better.” 

There is a precedent of student-worker solidarity at Tufts. In 2019, students mobilized to support the dining workers during their union contract negotiations and near-strike. That March, 800 students attended a picket for the workers

In describing the student-worker relationship, O’Brien said, “We look at the students as family. They’re like my kids. They’re younger than my kids, so I consider them my kids. And a lot of people feel that way.”

UNITE HERE Local 26 is the union that represents dining workers. During the summer, their resources were spread thin and could not be extensively involved in the fight for summer pay, as they were in the midst of working on contract negotiations for the Harvard dining workers. Now, the union has laid out a plan for the Tufts dining workers to attempt applying for Pandemic Unemployment.  

“It’s in a gray zone, where the workers are trying to apply for the Pandemic Unemployment, which is supposed to fill the holes left by regular unemployment insurance. But, [I’m] not sure if it’s going to work or not,” Boulet-Gercourt said. 

In the meantime, TLC is encouraging students to have their parents complain to administrators over email, particularly to Executive Vice President Mike Howard and Director of Dining and Business Services Patti Klos.  

Boulet-Gercourt acknowledged that even though the university is not doing anything illegal, it still has a moral obligation to its employees. Addressing the Tufts administration, he said, “You use all this rhetoric of social justice and standing up for your workers, especially during COVID when the workers were literally putting their lives on the line to keep campus running for a year… if you wanted to, they could have gotten paid. Even though legally you are in the right, morally, and for everything that you say that you stand up for, this should not be happening.”

Boulet-Gercourt added, “I think Tufts goes a long way to try to hide the realities of what they do from the student body because they don’t want to ruin their image of being a good, social justice-centered school.”

Every day, for the entirety of the 2020 – 2021 academic year and continuing into the 2021 – 2022 school year, Tufts dining workers served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, despite the risk of getting infected with COVID-19. Students with COVID-19 were still served food from Tufts Dining, delivered to them by the workers. The dining workers also had to navigate a new order-in-advance app system. This semester, they are expected to maintain both in-person orders and app orders—a system different from both pre-pandemic dining and last year. According to O’Brien, this has put an added strain on the workers. 

She said, “We are so understaffed right now. We are so overwhelmed right now… I’m just concerned about the welfare of the employees. I’m concerned, safety wise, because they’re tired, they’re exhausted.”