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Dining Halls Face Staff Shortage In Boom Times

Quincy House workers frustrated with lack of help

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

In faithful search for that friendly enjoy-your-meal smile, Judith R. Della Barba keeps her Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) business cards close at hand. With Cambridge unemployment at under two percent, the head hunt is harder than ever.

"I'm not ashamed to say it," the associate director for human resources says. "We'll go into Bruegger's Bagels or Friday's and we'll give [an impressive employee] a card. 'You should come work for Harvard,' I'll say."

Hungry for staff, other Bay State restaurants and hotels--from the Hard Rock Cafe to Bartley's Burger Cottage--are having trouble filling their dishrooms and kitchens because of an economy on the upswing.

"There's a crisis in the Massachusetts food services industry," Della Barba says--and HUDS is feeling it, with at least 35 openings at their dining halls, restaurants and catering operation, according to the Office of Human Resources Web site.

Quincy House, one of HUDS' busiest and most understaffed with multiple vacancies, is in the thick of the problem. Currently, temporary workers and other staff have to overcome 100 hours of missing labor per week.

"We've been running on a short team since September," says one general service staff member. "It's a very hard, physical, stressful job. They need to get more help."

Adds a Quincy chef: "If things keep going like this, a lot of people will leave."

At The End of Their Rope

Some already have left.

More than 10 Quincy dining hall staff members, who requested anonymity to avoid creating even more tension, told The Crimson how their jobs have changed since last spring.

"A lot of the young people in the dishroom have quit," says one staff member, counting four recent departures--plus two from last year--

still unfilled. One 40-hour general service staffer left in the middle of October.

The shortage--which extends from the Quad to Mather House--means that current workers are often doing double-duty. Three full-time positions in Dunster and Mather's kitchen have been vacant since the beginning of the school year, according to a Nov. 5 HUDS employment bulletin.

The shortages--and the responsibilities--are even worse on the weekends, when some work overtime to earn extra money and keep the kitchen operational.

"We spend more time here than with our families," one Quincy staff member says.

Timothy P. McCarthy '93, a resident tutor in Quincy House who has known many of the workers for a decade, says 1999 has been especially taxing for dining hall staff.

"This is the first year that they are more tired," he says. "They are more burdened because they are crunched for staffing."

Quincy staff members feel bad for one of their co-workers, known for taking on numerous tasks," in particular, calling him "Yo-yo."

But indeed everyone has been forced to multi-task this semester, stretching the boundaries of their job descriptions to get the work done.

"A lot of people have extra things to do," one says. "This is a very physical job. The staff--from the cooks down--they're doing five things at once."

"I've talked to chefs--working at Harvard is harder than working at a restaurant," she adds. "The cooks here work like dogs."

One employee, not the usual two, tends to the salad bar. Only one cleans up Quincy's 50 tables after closing time during the week--and on weekends, staff say no one does it. General service staff count on the checker to help move food on the hot line. Even the manager can sometimes be seen cooking in the kitchen.

The strenuous work takes its toll.

"Some days are harder than others. Some people don't want to work," a staff member says.

"We used to come to work happy," adds another. "We can't do that anymore."

'Rat Cards'

As students queue around the spiral staircase leading up to the Quincy checker desk, staff members know what's in store for them.

Each weeknight, Quincy chefs prepare about 250 made-to-order grill requests for the 450 total students who come to eat. On weekends, when the staff working behind the counter shrinks, the number of grill orders drops to 150.

Without adequate staff to keep the grill orders filled, restock the offerings on the line and keep the place clean, students often face empty pans and slow grill service.

"This place isn't a restaurant. They are all coming at once," says one staffer. "It's not like you are going to McDonald's."

Without immediate service, students sometimes get mad--and then fill out yellow feedback cards.

"Those feedback cards--we hate them. They rat on the help," one staff member says. "Sometimes we can't get things out fast enough. I get upset with the students--I call them 'rat cards.'"

Students often add to the staff's frustration with impatience and insolence, McCarthy says.

He recalls an incident at the end of lunch when a line of nine students waiting to bus trays had formed in the corner of the hall.

"The kid in front of me announced arrogantly, 'I've got to get to class, can't they wash these any faster?" he says.

"I would have thrown a cup at him," steams McCarthy, who says he has witnessed numerous incidents of disrespect toward the staff.

Students, he says, expect--and get--too much from HUDS.

"There's sometimes a real taking for granted that a lot of students do--a lack of consideration," he says. "Many of these people are busting their ass and doing the work of one-and-a-half people."

"There is excessive capitulation to student desire," he adds, noting that staff are frustrated because their grievances don't get listened to in a similar manner.

"We are not superhuman. They don't care how you do it, so long as you do it," a general service worker says.

"You've got to do everything to a 'T' here," another adds. "When you don't have the help to do that, it's hard."

Talk Back

The student feedback cards, explains Alixandra E. McNitt, HUDS associate director for communications and marketing, are read by as many as 19 managers in HUDS' headquarters, as well as managers in each House. Their student feedback system is so responsive that it has won awards including a national customer service award from Food Management Magazine.

Della Barba says that staff don't get to fill out similar feedback cards to evaluate their own experiences--and isn't convinced that they should.

"[Students] are our guests. You pay for that meal. When someone is working for us, there is a different imperative," she says.

Quincy dining hall manager Christian P. Pesce, new to the hall and Harvard this year, says he keeps his office door open at all times.

"If someone has a particular problem, they should go to the manager," he says.

"What I think the employees might be pleasantly surprised about is that we are here to support them. There are definitely lines of communication there," he adds, noting that he's been on the job for only nine weeks.

Staff in Quincy disagree, saying that they've had only two meetings with the hall's new management and don't believe they are being listened to--even though they've worked in the hall for years.

"We don't have the last say in anything--regardless of our suggestions and opinions," one says.

And staff say that even their union, Local 26 Restaurant and Hotel Workers, has provided them with little assistance.

"They say 'that's your job -- you have to do it.' What are we paying dues for?" says one staffer.

Union representatives, including President Janice Loux, didn't return three weeks of Crimson phone calls and faxes.

Meanwhile, the problems aren't going away.

A Cornucopia of Work

If more Quincy staff did choose to leave, they would have jobs to go to, judging by current market conditions.

In 1998, the Cambridge resident unemployment rate sunk to 1.9 percent--the lowest in decades--compared to 3.3 percent statewide and 4.5 percent across the nation.

Barry A. Fitzpatrick, the Boston staffing manager of Culi Services, the largest provider of food service workers in the United States, says his industry is facing a particularly large boom, with five new hotels opening in Boston.

"There will be a 31 percent increase in the need of what we call 'back of the house help' between now and 2006," he says. "You see what they need for personnel--and they can't find them."

The University hopes higher salaries and benefits will keep current employees satisfied.

"We're Harvard, we give excellent benefits," Della Barba says. "You can't go anywhere and do similar work and get paid anywhere near as much."

The starting salary for a full time cook at HUDS is $12.70 to $14.71 per hour, compared to a 1997 Boston metropolitan average of $11.15 per hour for institutional or cafeteria cooks and $9.47 per hour for restaurant cooks.

Harvard's general service and serving staff fare even better. The starting full time salary for a dining hall checker is $10.54 to $12.04, compared to a Boston average of $7.03 for dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers.

And Harvard benefits for full-time staff members include health, dental, life, and disability insurance, access to Harvard's resources, tuition assistance and paid time off.

Fitzpatrick says Harvard is known for some of the nicest facilities in the region.

"You folks are unique. You don't have cafeterias--you have dining halls," he says.

What Is To Be Done?

Still, HUDS' job openings list, mirroring state-wide trends, has grown by at least 50 percent in recent years.

HUDS Director Ted A. Mayer says he is sensitive to this difficulty and has made personnel a priority, creating a new human resources department.

"We do a lot of recruiting and advertising," he says. In recent months HUDS has also run numerous job fairs, particularly some on weekends when potential staff might have time off from other jobs.

But not everyone makes the cut.

"It is important that we get people who can do the job," Mayer says, noting that intimate House dining requires special screening. "You have to make sure they're trustworthy."

Some of the recent recruitment has been aimed at students, who already live in the Houses, and can afford to work short shifts without benefits.

"We can supplement our workforce, and help the students out." Della Barba says. "It's a win-win situation. Who better to reach out to?"

But in recent years--especially after last year's across-the-board increases in financial aid--Harvard students have chosen other lines of work in libraries and computer labs, or no work at all.

That puts Della Barba in a tough spot.

"Oh, please come work for us," Della Barba smiles. "Please, please, please."

Another way Harvard fills openings is with temporary staff, who also do not get paid benefits or premium salaries.

Culi Services fills vacancies in Eliot and Kirkland Houses, as well as the Culinary Support Group and Crimson Catering.

"They hire us to help them supply their needs. We do the screening, recruitment. If Harvard called up and said, 'We need a cook,' I'll call a few I think will be a good match," Fitzpatrick says.

But staff say temp workers sometimes bring new problems.

"They don't know the job," explains a Quincy chef. "We have to teach them and sometimes they don't show up."

And staff say other attempts to get full time employees have also failed.

"They can't get a lot of help in the dish room--they come and they just don't want to stay," a staff member says. "They have to make it more appealing than lousy hours."

Many suggest that the real concern of HUDS is saving money. Some note that Quincy experimented with a trimmed-down dishwashing staff on weekends, which failed.

"They don't want to hire full-time people. They'd prefer to have temp people," says one chef, noting that a formerly full-time position was recently replaced with a part-time one.

McNitt says the HUDS director's office isn't out to pinch pennies, but does scrutinize its spending.

"It's a process. We're not frivolous with the budget. We have a responsibility to your board dollar," she says. "So when managers are doing their planning, we ask how they can work with the staff to be as efficient as possible with the job."

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