Annora McGarry / Sun File Photo

Cornell dining workers say their wages are much lower than those of comparable positions at all other Ivy League universities.

October 27, 2016

C.U. Dining Workers Complain of Low Wages but Fear Consequences of Strike

Print More

Harvard dining hall workers went on strike almost a month ago, protesting problems of low pay, inconsistent employment during academic breaks and limited ability to better their working conditions. Cornell dining employees claim that they earn even less.

Workers at Harvard staged a walkout following failed negotiations between the university and Unite Here Local 26, the union representing employees. The union’s demands included a salary increase to $35,000 a year and a freeze on out of pocket health expenses. Harvard acquiesced to both of these requests, ending the strike on Wednesday.

Cornell dining workers interviewed by The Sun — all of whom asked not to be named out of concern for their jobs — expressed similar grievances, saying their average wages fall well below the salary of comparable positions at all other Ivy League schools. But Cornell workers are loath to walk because they say they were warned that such a demonstration would lead to their dismissal.

One worker detailed how Cornell employees were explicitly told not to stage a walkout during collective bargaining because it would be considered an unsanctioned union walkout. They were informed that they would face dismissal by the University if they disobeyed these instructions.

“That was why we all decided not to strike, because we got told that if we did strike, they would replace us,” the worker said. “They would replace every one of us. And most people working here have families so they’re like, ‘Oh well, I can’t afford to walk out of my job.’”

When asked to confirm these allegations, the University denied telling workers not to strike, saying the decision “is the union’s alone to make, consistent with its constitution and bylaws.”

Workers also revealed ironic personal anecdotes about working alumni events — during which the University often collects extravagant donations — while being denied livable wages.

“You got alumni coming in, donating $25 million, $10 million, $5 million. I don’t see what they’re doing with the money,” one employee said. “We’re not getting any more money.”

Living on the Poverty Line

Cornell dining employee wages average $16.88 an hour, which is “neither the highest or the lowest” when compared to other Ivy League schools, according to Melanie Ciotoli, director of human resources for student and campus life. Ciotoli stressed that this number is, on average, 30 percent better than the local market value for comparable positions.

Experienced employees interviewed by The Sun say they are paid an average hourly wage of around $17 — the Harvard employees on strike made $21.89 an hour. They said, however, that this initial number is misleading, as short hours and interruptions in employment, due to academic breaks, infringe upon their ability to earn a living wage.

“We get cut off all year round. We get cut off in the summer. We get cut off between December and January for a month. We get all the breaks, spring break, fall break — cut off for that,” one employee said. “They close it down, and we don’t get paid for none of these breaks. We work literally nine months out of the year. That’s crazy.”

Others added that even in parts of the semester when work is consistent, many schedules fall short of full-time work.

“I’ve been here five years, I make $16.33 an hour. I work 35 hours a week; they won’t even give me 40 hours a week,” the same worker said. “They said I was hired as a 35-hour-a-week employee.”

With this wage, a 35-hour-per-week limit and the unavailability of work, due to school closure during breaks, this particular full-time employee makes a yearly salary of around $20,000. The federal poverty line is currently at $11,880 for an individual without a family and at $24,000 for a family of four.

Responding to these issues, Ciotoli acknowledged that employees are “susceptible to the academic schedule” but said Cornell tries to supplement these hours during breaks with paid trainings, by assigning workers to other University departments and opening dining halls for academic conferences or summer camps.

“[We] are proud to say that any employee that has wanted summer work for the last few years has gotten summer work,” she said.

‘Saving Cornell Money’

Employees also claimed that their managers often do not find replacements when co-workers are fired for various reasons, leaving work that is meant for two employees to a single person.

“They call it ‘saving Cornell money,’” one worker said. “How is it saving Cornell money, if you’re working your employees extra hard till they get so tired they, they’re like ‘I’m not coming in tomorrow my back hurts, my feet hurt.’”

Ciotoli stressed that dining management “works diligently” to fill vacant positions and uses floaters to accommodate absences.

Workers also took issue with the publicization of Cornell Dining’s third-place ranking by the Princeton Review — an honor that the University exhibits throughout campus dining halls, on its literature and on its website. Cornell’s success, some employees claim, is unfairly attributed to dining management and not the dining employees.

“No one actually thinks about us. We got the third rating in the Princeton Review and the managers are so happy about it,” an employee said. “But they claim it all, they claim that they’re the reason that they got that rating, when they don’t seem to realize that if all the workers were to walk out, there would be no rating. There would be no dining.”

Employees believe that their work should be recognized more broadly. The solution? Workers suggest representation and livable wages, to start.

Attempts by the dining employees’ union, United Auto Workers, to remedy trouble with the University have had mixed success, one employee said. In the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the University and the dining employees’ union, the union only managed to obtain a two percent wage increase — well below a dollar on most Cornell employees’ hourly wage.

A UAW representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this issue.

One employee detailed the hardships associated with struggling to pay bills and provide for a one-year-old daughter.

“I make $17.22 an hour,” the employee said. “I’ve been here 3 years. I make $25-30 grand a year. It’s literally ridiculous.”

Rebecca Blair ’17 contributed reporting to this article.