After working at Harvard University Dining Services for four years as a KPL — kitchenperson, potwasher, and laundryperson — Andrew G. Knudsen-Jaiman had settled into a routine.
On weekdays, he’d take entrepreneurship classes at Bunker Hill Community College, starting at around noon. At 4 p.m., he’d head to work at Harvard Hillel, the University’s Jewish center, where he served dinner until 8:30 p.m. And on Saturdays, he worked in the Quincy House residential dining hall.
In September 2021, as Jaiman began preparing to welcome students back to a full dining hall for the first time since March 2020, he learned that Quincy would now be the only upperclassman dining hall at the College to serve hot breakfast. But over the course of the pandemic, many employees had retired or left their positions, he says, leaving the rest to deal with the influx of students every morning.
Instead of his usual late afternoon shift, Jaiman started working from noon until 6:30 p.m., and he needed to move his classes to the early morning.
“I had to take my classes this year like 8:30, 9, and then go right to work and work eight hours, and it affected my study,” he says.
At Hillel, meanwhile, one of Jaiman’s colleagues took maternity leave and another resigned, leaving him to pick up an additional shift on Fridays that kept him at work from 11 a.m. to around 9:30 p.m. In preparation for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, Jaiman found himself working double or even triple his usual hours.
“Those are days where we work 14-hour days in there, back to back to back to back,” he says. “There was one time we worked 13 days straight before I had the day off.”
Jaiman wishes his managers had notified him in advance of the removal of hot breakfast from other houses. The shortages and change in dining plans, he says, caused “one big storm.”
“They weren’t really like, ‘Hey, in three months, we’re gonna be doing this, so this might be the Plan A, Plan B,’” Jaiman says. “It was like, ‘Hey, [it’s] September, there’s no hot breakfast. There’s no jobs filled at the moment. We’re gonna have to work a little bit [more] double time than usual.’”
The reason behind the staff shortage, Jaiman says, remains a mystery to him. “I don’t know where to put the finger,” he says. He’s not sure “if it’s a Harvard thing” or if it’s a “Covid thing.”
Since the College’s return to a full-capacity campus last fall, Harvard has seen a record-high 1,962 freshmen in the Class of 2025. According to dining service employees across campus, jumping from reduced pandemic services to an unusually full campus has strained their workload after a significant portion of staff already retired or quit.
Some of these issues are, indeed, a product of the pandemic — mass resignations and national labor shortages have been widely documented in the past few months. Others, though, are Harvard-specific. HUDS employees claim that the University’s hiring practices and unsympathetic culture have mentally and physically worn them down.
Employees attribute many of the vacant positions to early retirements; in 2020, 693 University employees took buyouts from Harvard’s Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program, a program designed to cut costs during the pandemic. Dining employees across campus chose to retire early through VERIP or simply left their positions, according to Cassie Stapleberg, a Dunster-Mather shop steward.
The University intended to fill some, but not all, of these vacant positions, according to President Lawrence S. Bacow in a May 2021 interview. “In many cases, there are opportunities to think about how work is structured and restructured in ways that will not require that we fill every position,” Bacow said.
In April 2020, one month after Harvard temporarily closed down its campus, the University announced a salary and hiring freeze. “Just coming out of a job freeze, you have to allow the time to go and wait for it to iron itself out,” Stapleberg says. Though that freeze has since lifted, she adds, hiring and onboarding new employees can take another several weeks or months.
Harvard is hardly the only employer feeling the effects of short-staffing. In an October interview, Jason Furman ’92, a professor of the practice at the Harvard Kennedy School, said U.S. workers were quitting their jobs at historically high rates and are slower to return to work. “As a result, employers all across the country in almost every industry are facing labor shortages right now,” he says.
Thanks to pandemic stimulus checks and other government aid, Furman says, people who had lower-wage positions have a little more flexibility in searching for a position and don’t have to settle for “the first job that comes along.”
“Employees, in many cases, especially [those of] lower wage, lower educational background, have less of a choice than they should have, but they have more of a choice than they’ve ever had before,” Furman says.
Some people may not want to take jobs that involve a higher risk of Covid-19 transmission, he adds, a category that includes hospitality positions like dining services. “Workers are more reluctant to take those jobs and have been insisting on higher pay in exchange.”
HUDS wages, however, have not risen to meet the rate of inflation. In September 2021, the union representing Harvard’s dining employees, UNITE HERE Local 26, ratified a contract with Harvard that stipulated a 2.75 to 3.25 percent annual pay increase over the course of the five-year contract, while a November 2021 report published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that consumer prices in the Boston area rose by 5.3 percent in the past year.
Employees that have stayed with HUDS report that the missing hands have created more work for those who remain.
“It’s a lot harder, a lot falling on a person’s shoulders,” says Jordan, a Leverett general service employee who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “You are one or two employees down. It is stressful, time-consuming — overall it’s just chaotic.”
In the Dunster-Mather shared kitchen unit, some HUDS employees say they need double the labor they currently have due to early retirements and vacancies.
According to a Dunster-Mather employee who was granted anonymity to discuss workplace conditions, one person in each dining hall should maintain and clean the hot food line, the soup station, and the pasta station, while another retrieves food from the kitchen. However, they say, oftentimes during the fall semester, only one person was in charge of cleaning and stocking three stations.
Though Annenberg, Harvard’s freshman dining hall, bears the brunt of feeding the record-high number of first-years, employees say many of the upperclassmen dining halls also saw a staggering number of students at the beginning of the fall semester.
According to Jaiman, the KPL at Quincy and Hillel, the students dining at Quincy at the start of the semester far exceeded pre-pandemic numbers.
“We do handle a little bit of fluctuation easy, but not those numbers,” he says. “The shortage of the staff with those numbers is just something that you really can’t keep up with.”
To make matters worse, in October, Adams House closed its dining hall due to a fruit fly infestation, driving students to other houses.
Between a high-density campus population, a slew of retirements, the closure of Adams, and changes in employment driven by the pandemic, employees say they were pushed to shut down some of their services as a last resort.
Several dining halls, including Adams, Kirkland, and Leverett intermittently closed their grills. Annenberg, Quincy, Leverett, and Winthrop frequently shut down their dish rooms, falling back on disposable plates and plastic cutlery.
Because hundreds of dirty dishes tend to accumulate toward the end of dinner service, one HUDS employee described, it’s difficult for workers to stay afloat with only two people working in the dish room.
“You cannot do it,” they say.
Many of these big-picture causes of Harvard’s dining labor shortages — the pandemic, the early retirement program, and unusually high student enrollment — are beyond the control of HUDS. But according to employees, management missteps are making matters worse.
Under Local 26’s new contract with Harvard, HUDS will offer positions to the contracted dining employees who were laid off from the Law School and the Graduate School of Design as part of Harvard’s transition to all in-house dining services. When the contract was ratified in September, the University was aiming to fill approximately 50 positions, according to Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton.
However, the process of filling vacancies takes months. Employees can apply for vacancies through a “bumping” process; once a position opens up, Harvard posts the opening in every unit’s job-posting books for seven days and chooses applicants based on seniority, then passes down the list of remaining positions until there are no more eligible applicants. Then, HUDS begins offering positions to external candidates, according to HUDS spokesperson Crista A. Martin.
Stapleberg, the Dunster-Mather shop steward, says this bumping process delayed the hiring of new staff members for several months during the fall semester.
“Not only were we in a job freeze, we just had bumping,” Stapleberg says. “The bumping causes a freeze on positions as well, so nobody can apply for jobs.”
Many empty positions remained unfilled until December, when HUDS held a job fair for the positions left over from the bumping process. It has now offered more than 25 positions following the job fair, Martins says, and it will offer 23 additional jobs through an internal bidding process.
While employees waited for the new positions to fill, they noted that managers contributed to increased stress and overwork among existing employees.
Though some of the other house kitchens were closed during the summer, Dunster-Mather and Winthrop were open and already feeling the effects of a lack of staff, according to Stapleberg. She filed grievances on behalf of other employees against managers who used the staff shortage to justify denying them sick time, dependent well care, and vacation time.
“A lot of us are still dealing with Covid issues with kids in school, so people are needing time off,” she says. “Management gives us a hard time about using the DWC because we’re already in a shortage of staff. The whole slogan of the policy of Harvard’s mission is to be able to balance work life and home life. I think a lot of us are right now finding it hard to access, to find the balance.”
At Winthrop, Carlos A. Alvarez, who had only joined the house dining staff during the summer, says that after his knee surgery began causing him pain during work, management accused him of calling in sick too frequently even though he provided medical documentation. He finally felt that he had no other choice but to go on short-term disability leave.
“It was a day where I woke up feeling nauseous, so obviously working in the food industry, you’re supposed to call out sick,” he says. “When I called out sick, the manager that was at Winthrop House called me, and in the tone of his voice, you [got] some aggression, and he was saying that I was calling out frequently, even though I had valid doctor’s notes.”
The experience felt “strange” and “off-putting,” Alvarez says, because he feels that managers should put their employees’ health first instead of pressuring them to call into work.
In general, Alvarez says that managers can intimidate or coerce many dining services employees into undesirable conditions due to their vulnerability.
“There’s a lot of workers in the dining services, who… get pushed around because they aren’t fully aware of their rights as employees or their benefits or their rights as union workers,” he says. “Due to the fact that English isn’t their first language or their strong suit, and maybe the fear of losing a job, they often take any role, anything given to them.”
Martin, the HUDS spokesperson, wrote in an emailed statement that “our existing team continues to work collaboratively in order to tackle each day’s work while serving and supporting our busy on-campus community.”
Alvarez’s experience is not universal. Many employees have noted that their managers are coping with the pandemic as best as they can.
“We have to do what we have to do to just keep these halls up and running the best that we can,” Stapleberg says. “So I don’t want to put the burden on management when we’re all in the same situation.”
Jaiman, too, says he feels “fortunate” to work at Harvard.
“I go home and say I’m happy to work for Harvard,” he says. “I love talking to students and just being around a place like Harvard is very inspiring.”
Alvarez had worked at the Harvard Faculty Club for around five years prior to joining Winthrop, but in an October interview, he shared his plans to leave the food services industry altogether.
“I want to move away from that environment because it’s just very toxic,” he says.
In the fall, he did. Alvarez began working for Harvard University Information Technology while on short-term disability leave from HUDS. By the spring, his name no longer appeared in Harvard’s internal directories.
Jaiman also doesn’t intend to stay forever. He does video production work in his free time and he’s switching his major to Integrated Media Design. He plans to leave HUDS after he finishes his degree at Bunker Hill.
“That's the goal: to get my degree and then move on,” he says.
— Associate Magazine Editor Meimei Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.