COVID-19 and lack of dining locations pushes understaffed dining crew to the limit.
While preparing as many smoothies as possible for the day, Joe Snow, a campus dining employee, watches the line of students grow, grow and grow in front of Knowlton Café. While Knowlton Café is relatively well-staffed, the absence of previous dining options, such as Mom’s Truck Stop, creates an overwhelming amount of students at Knowlton for employees to serve. “I bust my ass a lot more to try and get people through the line faster,” Snow said. “Parts of [my] body hurt that I didn’t realize hurt in the past, because I am moving so much.”
“I feel bad for the students because they complain that it takes so long for us to get the food out,” Snow said, “but we are going as fast as we can.”
While Knowlton Café sees a dramatic increase in students, Lowry Center Dining Hall continues to face a lack of staffing. “We usually have one or two people at each [food station],” said a Lowry Dining Hall employee, “today, we have only seven employees, and two to three of them were students. A lot of students are here who help us; we appreciate them,” the staff member said.
Despite numerous job openings, schools across the country are currently struggling to find campus dining staff. Wayne County is currently experiencing staffing shortages, and multiple small businesses in the area have closed their doors. “Essentially all employers in our city and region – from small businesses to medical providers and more – simply are having a very hard time hiring,” President Bolton said. “Every business owner I have talked with in the last few months has fewer employees than they need, and that is true at the College as well.”
Snow, who also works at Grille at Lowry every other Sunday and Saturday, finds that the lack of staffing creates higher expectations for The College’s dining staff. “Everyone expects a lot more from [us] because we’re so understaffed,” he said, “so you have to work two or three people’s jobs instead of just your own.”
One dining employee echoed Snow’s statement. “It’s hard,” they said, “we are short-staffed.”
In response to the nation-wide staffing shortage, the College took steps this summer to increase wages for campus employees. “We raised wages across the board in dining this summer,” President Sarah Bolton said, “with the starting wage now 14 dollars per hour, up from 12 dollars per hour starting wage prior to this summer, and are reviewing wages for continuing employees for additional increases.”
Thomas Tierney is chair of the Strategic Planning and Priorities Advisory Committee, a committee that advises President Bolton on budgetary and planning issues. “We have been concerned, as a committee, with the staffing challenges we have been facing in the last few years and expected that this year would be particularly difficult given the labor shortage in this area,” Tierney said. “So we were fully supportive of the decision to raise the entry level hourly wage, but had concerns that this wouldn’t be sufficient to solve our staffing shortages.”
Along with the nation-wide staffing shortage, a dining employee claimed that COVID-19 has taken a toll on the Lowry Center Dining Hall, as dining employees occasionally cannot work due to testing positive for COVID-19 or being a close contact.
Bolton acknowledged that COVID-19 can impact dining staff numbers, but she was not able to provide specific case totals among dining staff. “Those are constantly shifting numbers, and we can’t share them by department because that could become a violation of privacy – for example, people might notice someone is out and then also hear that there is a COVID positive report.”
From Sept. 13 to Sept. 26, the College reported five COVID-19 cases among staff members, according to the College’s COVID-19 Dashboard.
“We have people out,” a dining employee said.
Along with raising wages, Bolton said the College has multiple strategies to help support the depleted staff. “We will be asking other employees across campus if they wish to support dining by volunteering there or working overtime for additional wages,” Bolton said. “We have arranged food trucks to provide other food options (which you can purchase with swipes).”
She also said that they have “added more cold storage at Kittredge to make it possible to store and provide a wider variety of food there to take the pressure off of Lowry, where the lines are longer.
Bolton added, “We are also looking to add a grab and go station at the C-store. Of course, our incredibly hard-working dining team, including Marjorie Shamp and others, are working extra shifts as well.”
When asked to describe the amount of work required of dining employees at Lowry, Snow was at a loss of words. “It is hard to put into words … it’s really hard to put into words,” he said. “People I’ve talked to before just say, ‘oh, you just cook burgers all day on a grill, it’s easy’ but whenever you run out of burgers and there’s a line of 20-something people who want burgers, you have to stop and cook the burgers.”