My job isn’t all Disneyland

It should be a disgrace to the University that people working in their kitchens can barely feed themselves.

My job as the exhibition station cook was featured in the Wednesday issue of The Minnesota Daily under the title “UDS chef serves up a personal touch.” I feel that the tone of the piece didn’t accurately reflect the experiences I explained to the reporter, Emma Carew, in my interview Nov. 14. Emma seemed to be a very nice person, and maybe the problem is that she is too nice because the article made my job at Middlebrook sound like Disneyland. While I do take pride in the work I do by providing (sometimes) more healthful food alternatives, it’s important to understand the obstacles that prevent my co-workers and me from serving the best food we can.

The first problem is that while the Daily and the management of University Dining Services, Aramark, like to refer to me as a “cook,” and although others who do the same job at the University get classified as cooks and I do fit the job description as defined by our contract, Aramark has classified my position as a “Food Service worker.” To them this means they have to pay me $3 an hour less as well as making it difficult for me to advance into different positions. After being at the University since November 2003 I have yet to earn a living wage, and because of the high rate of turnover from management policies, it’s obvious the intention is that most of us workers will be starved out from University employment before we do make it to that living wage. The University also has started hiring all employees as “temp casuals,” a classification that prevents them from receiving medical benefits for up to three months as well as adding up to six months in some cases to the employee waiting list for their living wage increase. How is it acceptable to the people of Minnesota that a public University, the third largest employer in the state, is allowed to set such abysmally low standards?

A second problem is an incredible lack of respect that full-time workers are shown by upper management. We increasingly are having our duties doubled because they refuse to call in temps. They are trying to discipline people for any combination of being late and calling in sick three times in a six-month period. We are continually feeling pressured to work while sick in order to keep our jobs. This labor shortage, as is all the problems described, is an intentional business practice to increase employee turnover that is systematic in the whole of UDS. It has the danger of lowering our sanitary expectations to such a dramatic level that students are made sick. This was the case last week when a number of Middlebrook students got sick, one so dangerously that she had to go to the emergency room, all because of food-borne illness from a different UDS facility.

It’s incredible that a major University allows its management to regularly make payroll mistakes (which always happen in their favor, by the way), that results in workers not being paid for enough hours or on time. Last year there were a number of instances when full-timers would receive checks stating, for example, 79.4 hours instead of 80. This is a practice called time shaving, popularized by those progressives at Wal-Mart who are fighting multiple class action lawsuits regarding their evil business practices. There are student-workers at Middlebrook who have not received their first check after working since September 2005.

As far as food, the University could do a million times better. My situation is that the management rarely orders the products I ask for so I’m expected to use the same exact ingredients every day. When they do give me menus to cook from (which is rare), then either the dish is impossible considering my equipment or the menu item is rotated every three or four days with something like white rice with onions; bland, boring and unhealthful. On the main line the menus are rotated to the same inexpensive dishes every three days. Should students have to keep paying as much money as they do for a service that is continually chopping the quality (and the safety of students) to save pennies?

It should be a disgrace to the University that people working in their kitchens can barely feed themselves and that these very people are, whether intentionally or not, regularly having to deal with not being paid for all the hours they worked. It should be a disgrace to the academics talking about workers rights that this is going on right under their noses with their tacit approval while they worry about abstract concepts or international politics. Because my co-workers and I do take pride in our work, we think it’s a disgrace that we are not providing the best quality and service to the students. We hope that other University workers will speak out and that the University will not just bury our concerns in a tornado of public relations bullshit, but will create a transparent process for the people who keep the University functioning, Teamsters and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees members, to voice their concerns and regain the pride we have in our communities, our jobs and this public institution.

Jon Collins is a University Dining Services employee. Please send comments to [email protected].