Episode 93: How the worker shortage affects M Dining

Since the pandemic began, UMN students and administration have seen a worker shortage in residential dining halls. Staff members discuss the effects of the shortage on student workers and administrative hiring efforts.

by Sean Ericson

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SEAN ERICSON: Hi, everyone. My name is Sean Ericson and you’re listening to In The Know, a podcast by the Minnesota Daily. Together, we’ll be exploring the University of Minnesota’s students and communities with each episode.

In this episode, we’ll be discussing short-staffing in campus dining halls. We’ll be hearing from people who work in the dining halls, as well as patrons and economic experts. Short staffing affects many of the dining halls on campus. A tight labor market and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have made finding employees more difficult.

According to Amy Keran, the U’s Director of Contract Administration, the turnover rate for M Dining employees this year is 41.5%. Keran stated in an email to the Daily that this is up by about two people from this time last year. According to Keran, from February 2020 to February 2021, 81 employees left their jobs. From February 2021 to February 2022, 83 left.

The Daily also spoke with Bi Xiong, the food service director at Pioneer Hall since October 2021. When asked whether her dining hall is short-staffed, she said yes. According to Xiong, many employers are struggling with staffing right now, not just M Dining. She said one of the biggest causes is COVID.

Xiong said that employees who have been working longer have been less likely to quit. Xiong estimated that for every ten employees hired, only half would stay. This matches up with the 41.5% turnover rate that Keran gave. 

Xiong also said that these staffing issues have affected Pioneer dining hall’s operations. M Dining has had to compensate for the lack of staff by changing how the dining hall is run. This includes closing some stations and changing menus.

Olivia Yanna works in the Sanford Dining hall. She normally stays about a half hour after her shift is scheduled to end.

OLIVIA YANNA: Just because we don’t have enough workers to do, like, the cleanup that we have to do at the end of the night.

ERICSON: Yanna also said that her workload has increased due to staffing problems. Yanna now finds herself juggling multiple positions at Sanford.

YANNA: Oh, like keep an eye on tables and staff this part and cook pizzas and do this and do this. And it just feels like I’m being pulled in like 100 different directions. I can do it, because I’ve had practice with it. But it’s not enjoyable. 

ERICSON: Yanna said that student workers are more likely to quit.

YANNA: Most of the student workers don’t last that long. Like a bunch of the people that I worked with last semester just aren’t even here this semester, so. 

ERICSON: Yanna told the Daily that she thinks some student workers never gain the trust of management and feel stuck in less enjoyable tasks within the dining hall.

YANNA: The managers don’t trust everyone. If you’ve somehow shown that like you have a good work ethic, or anything like that, like, they’re more likely to give you jobs, or at least jobs that are more interesting to do. Which is the level that I’ve gotten to, I don’t really know how I’m just doing what I do. But I know a lot of other people that I did work with, they never got that level of trust for some reason.

ALBERTO GOMEZ: Although the Minnesota Daily asked two Pioneer dining hall managers for comment, both denied to speak. 

ERICSON: Ella Kuntsman works as a cashier at the French Meadow bakery in the University Recreation and Wellness Center. Although Kuntsman works at French Meadow Bakery, M Dining transferred her to the Pioneer Dining hall due to staff shortages. 

ELLA KUNTSMAN: We relocated there for about three weeks until they were able to hire enough workers or just reorganize, and then we were able to return just recently.

ERICSON: Kuntsman said that she thinks the biggest problem facing M Dining services is the current labor shortage. 

KUNTSMAN: There are a lot of times that we don’t have enough people on staff. And it gets really busy. And I wouldn’t say that that’s a fault of the management or my like personal managers at all. They’re certainly trying their best to get people to work.

ERICSON: Kuntsman also talked about some COVID precautions. Kuntsman said managers have been understanding when employees need time off when they’re sick.

KUNTSMAN: I think they’re doing the best with at least the management that I’ve seen, they’re doing the best they can with what they’re provided. My managers have been really good about COVID, about people needing to take off when they have symptoms and such. So I’ve been really appreciative of that. I think enforcement of masks could definitely, there could be more, but from what I’ve seen with my managers, it’s been really great.

ERICSON: The Daily sat down with Amy Keran and Mike Berthelsen to get their perspective on staffing in the dining halls. Berthelsen, the Vice President for University Services, oversees the physical operation of the campus. Keran, the Director of Contract Administration, oversees food service and vending contracts.

ERICSON: Keran told the Daily that since the pandemic began, many frontline workers have decided to leave the food service industry.

AMY KERAN: The hospitality industry has been hit immensely hard through COVID, just due to so many people that count on that job on a day to day basis. And a lot of people have decided not to return back to the hospitality or restaurant industry. And so we’re just challenged to find the right talent that we need here at the University of Minnesota.

ERICSON: According to Berthelsen, amid staffing challenges, staff like Kuntsman shift from one location to another, with priority given to residential dining halls, like Pioneer. Berthelsen told the Daily that the seasonality of dining jobs contributes to high turnover.

MIKE BERTHELSEN: Because some of those jobs have a seasonality to it, some of those, some of the jobs are year round, and some are nine months. And people look for next opportunities and many of those from many of these jobs are entry level jobs and people look for the next opportunity and place for growth in their career.

ERICSON: Berthelsen told the Daily the University plans hiring with high turnover in mind.

BERTHELSEN: We know that that’s the case. And we always are very proactive in hiring over the summer to prepare for each fall.

ERICSON: According to Berthelsen and Keran, the current level of short-staffing is unusual. Keran told the Daily that Dining has been challenged this year by the COVID pandemic. And due to the current staffing challenges, Berthelsen told the Daily, the University has started posting their job openings in more places.

BERTHELSEN: We’ve been sort of extended the areas of places that we post our jobs, we’ve been very proactive in looking at, where we, where we post them, where we advertise them, looking for job fairs and try to be more creative in how we seek out to find other folks to do that.

ERICSON: As Pioneer food service director Bi Xiong told the Daily, the COVID pandemic has been an important driver of short staffing. Keran also told the Daily about what Dining has been doing to keep people safe during the pandemic.

KERAN: Every day, we just do our best that we can to service the needs of the students based on the recommendations that are coming from the CDC, MDH and also our HERO office to make sure that we’re providing the safest and best environment for the students as we can.

ERICSON: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy gained more than 600,000 jobs in February. Unemployment dropped to 3.8 percent. According to a CNBC survey, half of workers in the U.S. say their workplace is understaffed. The Daily talked to professors at the U, to get their expertise on this unusual labor market.

Avner Ben-Ner is a professor in the Department of Work and Organizations at the Carlson School. He said that staffing issues are widespread, but they’re hitting service industries the hardest.

AVNER BEN-NER: It’s a broad phenomenon across different labor markets, different regions, different occupations. It’s most palpable in the area in which we interact with workers like fast food or dining or, or other areas.

ERICSON: He explained that waves of quitting began among workers who had some savings they could fall back on. But as those jobs cleared up, people who were qualified filled those jobs, which freed up other jobs, and so on.

BEN-NER: And it starts with, with more mature workers who have some fallback funds, but it reverberates through the entire economy, because those who have skills to fill the jobs that are of higher pay, do that. And that vacates lower pay jobs. 

ERICSON: The large number of open jobs, Professor Ben-Ner said, has a couple of different effects on other workers. People who come into new jobs could be paid higher than the people who’ve been there for a while.

But this doesn’t necessarily apply to people who’ve stayed in the same job. Ben-Ner said seeing new coworkers start out with higher wages could breed resentment among long-time employees.

According to Ben-Ner, closing early, like M Dining has done sometimes, is common. If restaurants don’t have enough waitstaff, they might have to cut back on their hours.

BEN-NER: You know, they’re not enough waiters and waitstaff to get it to tables. So they close early or close on certain days. That’s a phenomenon that’s widespread, you can see everywhere. 

ERICSON: Professor Ben-Ner said that there are clear steps employers can take to attract workers, such as raising wages and improving working conditions. These solutions might not be possible, or they could lead to other problems down the road.

BEN-NER: Higher wages are not always feasible from the standpoint of a business. And they try to convert the higher costs into higher prices. But that reduces demand. So there is no simple way of getting around shortages.

ERICSON: Alan Benson is an associate professor in the Department of Work and Organizations at the Carlson School. According to Benson, one issue is that people might have had to stop working, either temporarily or permanently, during the pandemic.

ALAN BENSON: One of the things that’s going on is, is, of course, people might have had an interruption with their jobs over the course of the pandemic.

ERICSON: Other challenges could have come up in people’s lives as well, interfering with their ability and desire to work. People might have trouble with childcare, or they may decide they want to switch careers.

BENSON: Some people might have been furloughed, and as they’re called back to work, some of them are of course assessing what they want to do in the next stage of their lives.

ERICSON: Benson said that many of these issues are more likely to affect the non-student employees in dining halls. According to Benson, by affecting the broader labor market, these factors will affect the off-campus jobs students might be looking for.

BENSON: You know, if you think about like undergraduate student workers, though, they might be less directly affected by, for example, childcare issues, or they might be less concerned with, with the risk of COVID versus other demographics that might be more vulnerable.

ERICSON: According to Benson, the broader job market does affect student workers, because many are deciding between on-campus and off-campus work.

BENSON: But at the same time, you know, again, these labor markets don’t exist in a vacuum, the University still needs to compete with off-campus jobs.

ERICSON: And in the current market, Benson said, competition for workers is high. Employers are competing to attract scarce workers, which means that they may offer higher pay than before.

BENSON: One way that it could affect them, at a high level, of course, could be greater competition for their work. And so you might see larger raises, you could see employers offering signing bonuses, retention bonuses.

ERICSON: According to Benson, if these benefits aren’t extended to long-time workers, it could hurt morale. Long-term employees may feel resentful that new hires are getting a better deal.

Kuntsman told The Daily that staff shortages are about more than dollars and cents. 

KUNTSMAN: I guess just overall, adding staff is like a huge part of student mental health. Like I just see so many of my coworkers just extremely stressed out just from these like long hours with very few workers. So I think adding to that it’s if the University were to focus on that it’s them focusing on the mental health and well-being of student workers.

ERICSON: The Daily would like to thank all our listeners for tuning in. Special thanks to Maria Bengtson for her assistance in reporting this story. We’ll see you next time.

I’m Sean Ericson and this is In The Know.