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Amid an intense heat wave in Cambridge, Harvard senior Matthew Nazari ’24 sent an email Wednesday evening to Mather House’s internal mailing list and University President Claudine Gay.
“HUDS workers are overheating in the Mather kitchen and Harvard is just giving them fans and telling them to shut up,” Nazari wrote, instructing students to request an air conditioner for dining workers by texting the Harvard University Dining Services’ feedback number.
Following student outcry over Harvard dining working conditions, Harvard Undergraduate Dining Services closed Mather House’s dining hall for lunch Thursday and Friday and served dinner Thursday “without use of warmers” for the food.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 declared a heat emergency Thursday morning before temperatures reached 94 degrees Fahrenheit that afternoon.
Though the heat emergency brought attention to the lack of air conditioning for dining staff, dining workers said the problem of overheating is nothing new.
Mather’s dining hall is particularly prone to overheating because of its large wall of windows on one side. While the dish room is air conditioned, its serving and dining areas are not.
Mather resident Rachel E. Zhou ’24 said when they went to eat dinner Wednesday night with their blockmate, Nazari, it was “boiling.”
“We’re standing in front of these fans, but the fans are just recirculating hot air. There’s really just no ventilation circulation at all,” Zhou said. “It was just extremely uncomfortable.”
Zhou and Nazari then asked a few of the dining workers if they were able to tolerate the heat. “I was like, ‘How do you guys stand this?’” Zhou recalled.
According to two dining hall workers, at least 20 Mather residents texted the HUDS feedback number. On Thursday morning, Shannon Poppe Aruba — Mather’s house administrator — informed residents of the schedule changes.
“We have been actively working in partnership with HUDS to address the concerns raised about the heat impacting our dining hall team,” she wrote.
Several HUDS workers in Mather and Dunster houses — which share a kitchen — said they believed managers only responded to concerns raised by students.
“If you guys make noise, something will get done,” Mather-Dunster HUDS worker Prisco A. Mancaniello said. “If we make noise, nothing will get done.”
“Once students said something, that’s when we saw some movement from management,” Mather-Dunster HUDS worker Oscar Castillo said.
Dining hall workers in Mather and Dunster said extreme heat in their workplaces has existed for years without sufficient recourse.
“There is AC, but it does nothing once you turn on the machines. There’s way too much steam,” Mather-Dunster HUDS worker Jeremy N. Fernandes said.
“I had to — every few minutes — just step away and dry myself off and come back to work,” Castillo said.
When temperatures reach extreme levels, HUDS recommends substituting dishes with paper products to avoid using the dish room entirely. But outside the dish room, workers only have fans to cool down.
“Once you step out of the dish room, there is a prep area and then the grill — the Mather grill. That whole area is really hot. So the cold air from the dish room is not enough,” Castillo said.
HUDS spokesperson Crista Martin wrote in a statement that the food service is using “a range of solutions” including “closing dish rooms, reducing hot food preparation, giving staff frequent breaks and lots of hydration, and encouraging employees to work together to keep everyone — including students — safe.”
Martin did not comment on whether student outreach was the deciding factor in the schedule change.
Dining hall workers said HUDS management acknowledged the long-standing problem of overheating in a pre-shift meeting Thursday.
“I do believe they are trying. Just in practice, we haven’t really seen anything just yet. But hopefully they are being serious about it,” Fernandes said.
—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles.
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