Jing Jiang / Sun Senior Photographer

March 30, 2020

Student Dining Workers Left Unemployed Due to Downsizing

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When students usually wander through dining halls, they find their classmates serving their peers, their friends and their work-study needs. Although dining halls remain open for the remainder of the semester, the students behind the counter will be going home.

Cornell student dining workers received an email on March 22 that said all student dining employee team members “are not to report to campus at this time,” effective the following day.

The email said Cornell Dining will continue to provide updates as quickly as possible. But the announcement left some students uncertain about their pay this semester and future financial situation.

The decision to suspend student dining employment arrives following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) “New York State on PAUSE” executive order issued on March 20 amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which required all non-essential businesses to close, effective at 8 p.m. on March 22.

The plan also stated “any concentration of individuals outside their home must be limited to workers providing essential services and social distancing should be practiced.”

Dining halls started to downsize in accordance with the executive order. With fewer workers and students to serve, many stations have closed and eliminated self service. Students continue to eat takeout meals in disposable containers. At North Star Dining Room, pre-made salads have replaced the salad bar and the menu has continued to shrink.

Student dining workers join the millions of others who are feeling the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A press release from the U.S. Department of Labor stated a record of 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week.

For many students, the economic effects of this pandemic complicate their semester plans and finances.

Students who planned on staying in Ithaca and working for the remainder of the semester are now left without two months of paychecks. Cornell will only continue to pay students eligible for federal work-study who have not yet reached their work-study funds, according to the March 22 email. Some students are now wondering how they will pay housing costs next semester.

Additionally, Matthew Johnson, administrative manager for student and campus life, told the student dining team in an email that Cornell dining will provide “remote work opportunities on a limited basis” to non-operations team members, with approval from their supervisor.

A student worker at Bear Necessities, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was disappointed that the University decided to temporarily shutter student employment.

“Although dining provides amazing benefits to their full-time workers, students are only eligible for their hourly rates,” the student worker said. “I remained in Ithaca instead of going home so that I could continue to work, and that’s no longer possible.”

Nadya Kandel ’20 has worked in Cornell Catering for three years. However, once catering closed, she began working at Robert Purcell Community Center. While Kandel said she expected that the announcement of dining halls downsizing would only mean fewer shifts, she was disappointed by the news. Kandel now plans to leave Ithaca earlier than she had originally planned.

The majority of dining halls previously planned to remain open to prevent remaining students on campus from concentrating at few eateries. Kandel explained the confusion that she and other student employees felt as campus dining policy changed during the past few weeks.

“First, we got an email from the head of dining which listed the eateries that would be open over break and RPCC was listed on there,” Kandel said. “Then, student workers got an email that RPCC would be closing way earlier than they thought it would be.”

As of this week, the eateries that remain open on campus are North Star Dining Room, Becker House Dining Room, Jansen’s Dining Room at Bethe House, Keeton House Dining Room and Bear Necessities, according to a March 25 Cornell Dining email.

Marcus Gaines, the North Star dining hall manager, said the dining hall is functioning well despite the absence of temporary and student workers.

Full-time staff are the only remaining employees at North Star.

“We are taking this week by week,” Gaines said. “If a full-time employee can no longer come to work, our student workers and temporary workers are backup.”

Christopher Bedell is a cook at North Star who has worked at the dining hall for 20 years. Bedell, a veteran in the kitchen, has never seen the dining halls this empty.

“Normally, the vibe here is very vibrant, it’s a very jovial atmosphere and it’s been very solemn and quiet, kinda like working in a morgue,” Bedell said.

“This is unprecedented what we’re facing right now,” Bedell added. “This has never happened before so I’m simultaneously horrified and interested to see where this is going to go.”