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Steamed: Staff Bears Brunt of HDS Changes

By Geoffrey A. Fowler and Victoria C. Hallett, Crimson Staff Writerss

Five-minute breaks in ivy-covered courtyards can't make the problems go away for the staff at the Eliot and Kirkland House dining halls.

But that's all the time that harried cooks say they dare spare away from their ovens and woks this fall.

The halls, renovated for $3 million last summer, have indeed improved food quality for students, efficiency for the University and aesthetics for tour groups.

"We've got the Taj Mahal here," says Ted A. Mayer, director of Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS), who is planning similar changes throughout the House system within the next seven years.

But staff members say they were forgotten in the excitement over the latest in culinary technology.

"We've had a couple cooks just explode," says one Eliot chef.

The changes have cooking and serving staff straining to deal with less workspace, new equipment, more physical labor and as many as 350 grill orders per night.

"A few minutes away helps you calm down a lot," adds a Kirkland cook. "Now you've come back and it's gone even further into destruction."

In the course of three weeks, over 25 dining hall staff members, who requested anonymity to avoid creating even more tension, told The Crimson how their jobs have changed since last spring.

"If we think too much about it, we get too much stress," one Eliot staff member says. "This is going to be permanent."

Harvard officials admit they are aware of some problems, but argue that change is always difficult.

Staff say they're fed up but--after as many as 20 years on the same job--see little choice but to endure the new physical and mental strains.

The Pressure Cooker

Upstairs one recent Friday morning, chocolate chip pancakes flew in the Eliot House serving area.

Tray after tray, breakfast staff and cooks scrambled to keep up with the demands of a dozen members of the Harvard swim team. Twenty pancakes on a long, thin platter disappeared literally within seconds.

Hungry students challenge staff from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.--and chefs say that they're no longer adequately equipped or staffed to respond.

"Breakfast is one of our biggest problems," an Eliot chef says. "When we have sports teams in the morning, it clears us out."

And small home-style serving trays and scaled-down cooking equipment make it hard to maneuver products from refrigerators to ovens and the hot line at a satisfactory speed.

Some of the space problems result from the unique century-old architecture of the building. Some of it was by design.

In the old system, four cooks split the work for both halls in an out-of-sight, common kitchen. The new layout separates the employees into two-cook teams, with a small wok and grill station right in the servery.

"I feel it's harder. Before, cooks used to work together," an Eliot chef comments. "Now, we're separated."

By moving the cooks into view of the students, communication has increased.

"Part of the idea of this is for students to have greater access to cooks. By virtue of them being able to see you, they're going to want to get to know you," explains Alixandra E. McNitt, assistant director for marketing and communications for HUDS.

"We actually get to meet the students," says a Kirkland chef. "That's pretty much the only positive thing about the renovation."

He explains that's because the workload has increased too.

"One thing they did not anticipate is that grill orders didn't go down," one Kirkland cook says. Instead, individual orders of grill items like hot dogs and chickwiches increased exponentially.

"But even if we have a bad menu, we have to keep replenishing the line. It's awful," he said.

Other staff members say grill orders are a sure way to gauge the stress in the kitchen.

"The poor cooks, they have no time for grill orders, so they put up a sign," one Eliot staff member says of signs labeled, "Sorry, no grill orders tonight." "If you see the note, they are exhausted."

And bored, add the chefs. The process of pre-cooking food in the Culinary Support Kitchen and delivering it "blast-chilled" to individual halls means chefs spend much of their time lifting and transferring pans.

"They are preparing a lot more stuff for us downstairs," one chef says. "We're not cooks, we're re-heaters."

Worked to the Bone

Other general staff members--even those who say they're happy with their jobs--also feel the pressure of the changes.

A staffer in Kirkland says he'd rate the new system a 95 out of 100, but also notes, "my job is almost doubled now."

The glitzy renovations have increased traffic in the dining halls, forcing staff to serve above-normal loads while still settling into dramatically new routines.

"Before, we had break time," says one Eliot general staff member. "Now we have no break time--no free time, but we keep ourselves busy with exercise."

Many of the general service staff in the halls are veteran employees, with strong allegiances to Harvard and "their babies"--the students.

But--if questioned--even they admit the new workload, which includes heavy lifting and constant hustling, is taking its toll.

"Of course we're tired. When we get home, we can't do anything for our family," one says. "It's worse than any other year."

One of the workers' biggest complaints is a shift to ceramic dishware, new to all House dining halls this year. According to Crimson measurements, while a stack of 10 of the old style bowls weighed 4.25 pounds, a stack of 10 new bowls weighs 13.75--more than a threefold increase.

"The dishes are too heavy. It's killed the backs of the people," an Eliot staffer says.

"I got muscles since I started working," adds another Eliot staff member.

"Maybe I'm too old, but now I'm 51," a third complains. "I have bronchitis and asthma, but you have to go on."

Help Wanted

What would make their jobs easier?

Eliot and Kirkland staff members overwhelmingly agree that the addition of a fifth chef to work between the two serveries would ease the load on everyone.

"We end up having two cooks for each hall, and we're pinned," a Kirkland chef says.

For example, an Eliot chef who usually works the afternoon-evening shift came to work at 7:30 a.m. one recent morning to start prepping for lunch and dinner.

"An additional chef would turn [Kirkland] from a hall that is barely running to one that's running smoothly," he says.

The general service staff--responsible for keeping food on the line, salad bars stocked and drinks flowing--have the same complaint.

"Two ladies is not enough for this work," adds an Eliot general service worker. "In my opinion, we are working so hard that we lose our health."

Meanwhile, one chef has decided the strain has built up so much he has no choice but to leave.

"I know for myself, I want out," he says. "I like everyone, but I don't like the work. I find myself not wanting to come in a lot. I go home and think about this place--that's not supposed to happen."

After seven years with HUDS, the chef says he wanted to transfer to another hall, but as of yet that hasn't worked out--so he's out.

"The money's nice enough, but I should be able to have my breaks," he says.

Eliot Production Manager Joseph A. Conti says management has been responsive to staff concerns from the beginning.

"We've come a long way in eight weeks," he says. "They've never stopped us from bringing in more people and trying not to burn people out."

Most workers say they're not considering leaving: the benefits are excellent, the pay exceeds comparable jobs, and the staff likes interacting with the students. But coming to work has not been easy for anyone.

"We are here, we know how to handle the job--but it's tough," an Eliot staff member says.

Change is Difficult

Around the corner at HUDS headquarters on Quincy Street, Mayer and other managers admit they're aware their new system has a few kinks. But they contend that the tough times are just a step on the way to improvement.

"This is one of the hardest openings we've had," McNitt says. "A lot of the change is being pushed down to the unit [individual dining hall] level."

Mayer likens the process to cultivating a garden.

"You till it, you fertilize it, you make sure you plant the right seed, you water it. Right now we're in a watering and nurturing stage," Mayer explains.

"There's no question that people need to settle into their routines," he says. "No matter how hard you plan for these things, it's hard."

He agrees that escalating numbers of grill orders are a key problem.

"Having the cooks right there and having the students able to see it spurs them on," Mayer says. "We may have to pre-cook some items to reduce the stress."

Associate Director for Human Resources Judith R. Della Barba says HUDS continues to keep the interests of its staff in mind. She explains that, during initial stages of planning the architecture and technology of the new halls, she interjected with a "time out."

"What is happening here to ensure that our people will be trained?" she recalls asking. "We've got some people here--these are living, breathing human beings."

Her solution has been training.

"We have the responsibility to make sure that these people were not caught off guard. We owe it to our people to do that. Staff is everything to us," Della Barba says.

"When we switched to china, one of the first things that happened was that a shop steward called me up and said, 'we're concerned.'" Della Barba explains. "I'm so glad that we have that relationship."

Della Barba says HUDS has taken the idea of a fifth chef under advisement--and is quick to point out that she's created dozens of new positions in recent weeks.

Other strategies involve ergonomic training to assist the employees, some over 60 years old, in lifting plates and trays.

Renovation planning involved months of meetings with staff, managers, architects and experts, trying to anticipate possible glitches, Della Barba says.

"But nobody anticipated that there would be 350 grill orders," Mayer says. "That's a lot. You can't anticipate everything."

Now that the renovations have taken place, Mayer says the meetings continue. He cites "after-action" review sessions and monthly unit meetings as opportunities for staff to voice their grievances.

"It is incumbent on everyone to bring up issues," McNitt says. "It is all part of a complex puzzle--the staff has had a lot of challenges, and they continue to talk about it."

In the meantime, HUDS says change is necessarily going to be difficult.

"This is a part of the process. It certainly doesn't make you feel good," Della Barba says.

"But until systems gel--and they will--they're tired," Mayer says. "The only thing that's the same about these places is that they're called Eliot and Kirkland."

And Della Barba says she's already noticed an improvement on an individual basis.

"I see them going through this process, and it's becoming more comfortable," she says.

Conti agrees with her impression of the situation.

"It's 100 percent better than it was October 1," he says. "The stress level is way down now."

A Grain of Salt

However, conversations with staff reveal a breakdown in communication.

"The people in the director's office don't even know our names. They don't care about us," says one chef.

"When we got a look at the plan last year, we said 'this isn't going to work,'" he says. "We had another cook who had one look at the renovations and said, 'no way, I'm out of here.'"

But Eliot and Kirkland staff don't blame their managers, who they say are stressed out as well.

"We love the managers very much. They do the best they can to give us help and keep us happy," says an Eliot staffer.

Conti characterizes the Eliot management team's interactions with the staff as supportive.

"We're not pushing them from behind with a whip," he says. "That's not our style of management."

The staff recognizes the managers' commitment to improving the situation, but see them as powerless when up against the big wigs.

"The managers know about [the need for an additional chef] too, but there's a lot of red tape they have to deal with," says an Eliot chef.

Meanwhile, managers at Eliot and Kirkland schedule frequent meetings. The cooking staff gathers once a week and the entire staff gets together every other week, according to Conti.

But regardless of their efforts to open the lines of communication, staff aren't necessarily forthcoming about their objections to the renovations.

"If they are upset, they are keeping it to themselves," says one Kirkland staffer.

Not only do some staff feel they cannot go to HUDS, some also feel their union--Local 26 Restaurant and Hotel Workers--isn't responsive either.

"The union is no good at all. Nobody else will solve these problems," says an Eliot staff member.

Staff pay $12 per week in union dues, and every House unit in the HUDS system has a shop steward. But some HUDS staff say they haven't heard from their union representative in over a year.

"Union meetings are on Sunday, and we're here cooking and doing our jobs," says another chef. "They're saying, 'we're putting you on the backburner right now,' as all of these hotels are building in Boston."

Union president Janice Loux didn't return two weeks of Crimson phone calls and faxes.

Mayer says he will resolve lingering problems, adding that the staff has done an admirable job in dealing with the renovations.

"We're fortunate to have people who care so much and are conscientious," he says.

Conti says progress may be slow, but the staff is making headway through simple organization.

"We need to concentrate a little more on making sure that everything is in place before we get started," he says. "That first month was hard, but I'm back to enjoying my work. People are smiling now. People are joking. They're getting used to it."

But back in the Eliot servery, the staff aren't as positive.

"They've seen and heard that we're tired, burned out," says an Eliot chef. "But they put $3 million into this hall, they're not going to change it."

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