Dining staff say they are overworked, frustrated as a result of labor shortage

Out of the eight dining hall workers who responded to a Record survey, seven reported dissatisfaction. (Kitt Urdang/The Williams Record)

As the College navigates a local and national labor shortage, some members of the Dining Services staff say they are overburdened, lack confidence in the quality of their work, and are experiencing low morale. Of the eight dining hall workers who responded to an anonymous survey by the Record, seven expressed dissatisfaction with their experiences working in Dining Services this year. The difficulties of working in dining are mainly caused by pandemic-related supply chain shortages, according to Director of Dining Temesgen Araya.

“This is not the Williams Dining that we have been proud to be a part of,” wrote “Parker,” one staff member who has worked in Dining Services for multiple decades.

To speak freely about their workplaces, the staff members who spoke with the Record are referenced using pseudonyms and gender-neutral pronouns in this story, excluding one staff member who chose to identify himself.

The staff shortage in Dining Services places additional strain on a dining program already under stress due to the pandemic and an increased student population. On Aug. 19, several days before the first students would arrive on campus for the fall semester, Araya sent an email to students announcing that Lee Snack Bar and ’82 Grill would not serve late-night food options for the time being. He cited the nationwide labor shortage as the cause of the reduced offerings and wrote that Dining Services would be operating with 20 percent fewer staff than the optimal level for the beginning of the semester.

Chief Human Resources Officer Danielle Gonzalez said that dining has been short-staffed “due to absenteeism and leaves.”

“The College has really robust benefits including paid medical and family leave that allows for time off to care for themselves or a family member,” Gonzalez wrote in an email to the Record. “Employees are going to rightly use those benefits, but we have to acknowledge that [that] also puts a strain on the folks who are here working.”

During a year in which staff are particularly hard to hire, more students and community members are using the dining hall than ever before; 2,200 meal plans have been purchased this semester, a 300-plan increase from the usual 1,900.

After weeks of long lines in dining halls, reduced hours and food options, and silverware shortages, students received an email from Araya and Michael Wagner, Vice President for Finance and Operations, which announced additional meal times at Mission Dining Hall, increased offerings at Whitmans’ late night, and increased daytime ordering capacity at the ’82 Grill and Lee Snack Bar.

Trials of working in Dining

Even with a somewhat reduced Dining program, some workers reported feeling overwhelmed and overworked this semester. A cook, “Morgan,” said that they and other older people working in dining are “running on fumes.” Morgan transitioned to working at the College because they wanted to get away from the fast-paced restaurant industry. Now, more than two decades later, they said their job bears a troubling resemblance to what they left behind.

The unrelenting pace of preparing, serving, and cleaning has prevented some staff members from taking breaks during work, said “Quinn,” “Nicky,” and “Hayden.”

Staff often don’t have a chance to eat meals and have “only enough time to hurry to the bathroom,” Hayden wrote. “It’s quite difficult to come back to a position where you feel exhausted every day and feel as though you are just getting by.”

Araya attributed some staff members’ difficulties to disruptions in ingredient supply chains. If a certain ingredient doesn’t arrive, nutritionists have to scramble to find a substitute. The ensuing confusion trickles down to cooks and other dining staff, who expect Dining to function on a predictable, four-week menu cycle.

“When you go through your first four weeks of the menu cycle, you start creating a rhythm, and it’s hard to create a rhythm when it’s constantly a juggle,” Araya said.

Dining staff have continued to work hard despite the challenges, according to Parker. Although they can complete all orders, staff are frustrated with the service they are providing to students. “We aren’t working up to our standards, and it really bothers people,” they said. Normally, Parker would have time to chat with students and build relationships with them, but now, Dining staff feel so rushed that there isn’t time to connect, they explained. 

According to Parker and Hayden, designating Mission as a production kitchen has caused problems. While Mission has now reopened as a dining hall for dinner on weeknights and brunch on Sundays, it remains closed for lunch. As a result, the only buffet lunch options students have on weekdays and Saturdays are Whitmans’ and Driscoll. 

“We are not prepared to have a production unit open with as limited staff as we have,” Hayden said. “By opening Mission Park as a production unit, we have spread the staff very thin.”

In an interview with the Record, Araya said he has been trying to ease the burden on Whitmans’ and Driscoll by allowing the use of board swipes at Eco Café. According to Araya, however, the effect has been slow due to a lack of student awareness about the change.

Another member of the dining staff, Jim Butler Jr., who responded to the Record survey and agreed to have his name published, wrote that Dining’s decisions to reduce hours and move staff to different areas have been helpful. He expressed gratitude for the College’s handling of the pandemic and for the opportunities it has offered for professional development.

“Coming out of a pandemic where we didn’t lose our jobs, gained training and knowledge, acquired new equipment, and changed our program to a fresher in-house product, to me, speaks volumes as to how the department and College as a whole has invested in us,” Butler wrote.

This semester’s lack of student workers (until recently) has also increased the burden on staff. According to one staff member, temporary student workers would help reduce the workload on dishwashers. Another staff member agreed, saying that while student workers are of limited use for cooks, they can also help with dishwashing and salad preparation.

Dining Services recently began hiring student workers as swipe checkers and food runners, a change which, according to Araya, lessens the burden on the full-time dining staff. Dining has hired “a few” students so far, according to Gonzalez.

The path forward

Rather than attributing overburdened cooks to pandemic-era shortages, Morgan said that the underlying problem lies in wages. Morgan suggested that the College hire recent graduates from the Culinary Institute of America, for example. 

“[Araya] wants great food, but he isn’t offering a high enough wage to attract cooks who can make it,” Morgan said. 

Though Araya acknowledged that Dining Services has a shortage of cooks, he said that in Berkshire County, among potential workers, the skill level is relatively “fixed.”

“The wages [are] not going to influence someone to leave another county or another city to get here,” Araya said, noting that the College offers a competitive entry-level wage of $18 per hour for cooks. Instead, he said he wants to focus on hiring and training workers who already live in the area. 

COVID-related unemployment insurance ended in early September, which Araya said has resulted in an increase in applications for open positions posted by dining.

Since January, 18 regular dining positions have been filled, bringing the total number of dining employees to 135, according to Gonzalez. They are in the process “of onboarding a new snack bar attendant and catering cook, extending an offer to a cook, and are actively recruiting five other positions,” Gonzalez wrote in an email to the Record.

She added that the College is looking for “several more cooks and utility workers” to fill roles that will soon be left vacant after some staff members retire.

According to Associate Professor of Economics Owen Thompson, constraints on available child care and the lack of the generous unemployment insurance of the pandemic, which expired in early September, may be influencing people’s decision to enter the workforce. 

Northern Berkshire County has long struggled to fill labor gaps, which may be exacerbated by recent housing shortages. “The price of houses has gone up quite dramatically, and it’s also very hard and expensive to rent an apartment right now,” Thompson said.

During this period of disruption, Parker lamented the loss of what has made them proud to belong to Williams Dining. “If you’ve been there [Williams Dining] 20 or 30 years, you’ve been involved in some really great things, whether it was in your dining hall or special events,” they said. “And now it’s like, oh my God, I’ve just got to get through all this tedious stuff.”