Burdens on Bakers: Tufts Bakers Call for More Staff and Better Menus

In past years, Tufts students could order a cake from Tufts Dining on their birthday. The baking staff would bake a homemade cake, decorate it, and even write a message on the top. Tufts service attendant and shop steward Tricia O’Brien recalls this fondly. “That made so many people’s days,” she said. Now, with short-staffing and budget cuts, ordering custom birthday cakes from Tufts is no longer an option.

According to Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC), a student group that advocates for workers’ rights on campus, Tufts Dining has reduced its baking staff from four or five bakers to two since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the staff has shrunk, Tufts has not re-hired enough bakers to equal the pre-pandemic team. This has resulted in additional labor for the remaining employees. “We used to work normally,” Tufts baker Raymond Cormier said. “Before, when we had four bakers, we made our stuff and it was a good time. Now, we’re trying to rush to get things done…[It’s] more stressful.” With the limited amount of hands on deck, if even one bakery staff member calls in sick, it means nearly double the work for the remaining employees. “The managers have got to start realizing that we need more help,” Cormier said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tufts began to outsource baked goods, purchasing frozen products from outside suppliers when baking on campus every day wasn’t an option. Before the pandemic, the more robust baking team made most bakery products from scratch; this is no longer the case, as Tufts has decided to continue outsourcing goods even past the worst of the pandemic. “They’re outsourcing everything,” O’Brien said. “They’re outsourcing the pizza dough… They’re outsourcing cakes.” Tufts Dining has not made it public if they plan on continuing to outsource baked goods in the future. To Cormier, there is an essential difference between the quality of goods that Tufts promises and the actual food that is served. “[Tufts’ dining website] says it’s freshly baked every day, but it isn’t,” Cormier said. “It’s fresh-baked someplace else and brought in.”

This shift has led to discontent within the baking staff, who were accustomed to baking their own recipes with ingredients of their choice. Cormier mentioned his frustration at having to work with exclusively European butter instead of regular butter. While Cormier understands it is important to sometimes use this butter replacement to produce vegan desserts, he also believes it takes away from the quality of non-vegan products. Lee corroborated this, adding that the lower-quality taste of the baked goods is not fair to students. “The student pays for it. They should have good food,” she said. Cormier doesn’t think the managers would be receptive if he requested different ingredients. 

Outsourcing and ingredient replacements have not been the only changes in the way baked goods are produced at Tufts; the diversity of homemade bakery products made on campus has taken a hit as well. Instead of making their own array of recipes, staff members largely recreate the same menu each week. Baker Melissa Lee expressed there was a difference between what she had been promised in her hiring process and what the actual daily life as a bakery employee looks like at Tufts. “In the interview for this job they said ‘they will have a lot of different desserts,’ but for me, when I work here, I don’t see those things… I just do the same thing every week,” she said. Cormier has witnessed firsthand how baking at Tufts has become more repetitive in recent years. “We [used to have] a big display and we had all kinds of cakes that I did… they cut that out. They said it was just too expensive,” he said.

Shifts in the way food is produced at Tufts have meant that baking staff have been given less space to work. According to Cormier, since Tufts Dining relocated the production of hot food for Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run to Dewick, bakers have struggled with a lack of storage space. “I had four tables,” Cormier said. “Now we’re lucky if we have two… They took my bench on the bottom. The cupcake tins and everything… some stuff got thrown away.” Much of the baking staff’s equipment has been moved aside or thrown out in order to make space for other facets of dining. Cormier explained that even the freezer allocated for bakery items has been recently opened up to the whole central kitchen. This has left only a small freezer for the baking staff to store food in, which is not enough space for the amount of products the staff hopes to make.

All of these changes have made Cormier and Lee feel unprioritized by the Tufts Dining managers. The bakers fear for the future of their jobs. “We don’t have the manpower and [Tufts Dining managers] don’t want to hire anybody else,” Cormier said. “It seems like they’re pushing us out.” Dining managers have chosen efficiency at the expense of their employees.

Discontent among the bakery staff has led the remaining employees to seek help from the Tufts Labor Coalition to demand the revitalization of baking at Tufts. In response, TLC has formulated a petition, which links a series of demands to be delivered to the administration. 

The first of these demands is that Lee must be able to work full-time during the upcoming winter break. In previous years, according to TLC member Emma Cohen, the university would employ at least one baker during recesses for students who remained on campus. This is no longer the case. Rather than employing Lee to bake during winter break, Tufts Managers are asking Lee to pre-prepare goods and freeze them. Cohen said, “Now what they’re doing is having [Lee] make a bunch of goods before break, [and] freezing them so that she doesn’t work over break. Students don’t get fresh food, but the university doesn’t have to deal with any of those consequences.” 

These consequences go beyond the freshness of the bakery products. Without work at Tufts, Lee will be left without a source of income for the span of winter break. TLC believes that it is the university’s responsibility to employ Lee in order to “support her own livelihood,” according to the petition. Lee is a non-legacy employee, which means her contract does not technically require her to get paid time off during recesses. However, TLC members feel this should be amended given short staffing. Cormier is a legacy employee and receives paid leave.

TLC also demands more open communication from the administration about the quality of outsourced food, and their third demand is for outsourcing bakery products to stop completely. Finally, TLC demands “Tufts University publicize a plan to have a total of five full-time bakers employed by Tufts Dining by the start of Spring semester, January 17th,” according to the online petition.

TLC has sent the petition out to the Tufts community and has delivered it to the dining management team in a meeting organized by TLC. “These kinds of efforts can work,” Cohen said. “We really believe that we can make these changes happen as long as everyone steps up and supports this all together.”