Angela Bello knows how to cope with the chaos of a college dining hall. But nothing in her 13 years as a food service employee at Northeastern University prepared her for the workload Bello says the staff now faces every day.
It’s “crazy busy,” Bello said. “We are here running like chickens with no heads because we are understaffed.”
She often skips her 15-minute breaks to keep up with the constant flow of hungry students looking for sandwiches and pizza. ”We cannot give excellent service to the students because there are not enough people.”
The reason behind the stress? More students and fewer workers to serve them at the school’s three dining halls. A record-breaking admissions season at Northeastern increased the college population by 1,200 more students than the university initially expected, according to a recent school report. Combine that with understaffing woes ― part of a nationwide labor shortage precipitated by the pandemic ― and it’s been a constant struggle for food service workers at Northeastern.
Several employees reported heavier workloads, longer hours, and fewer breaks because the vendor employed by the college has been slow to hire new workers and replace those who left. Food service employees at other schools ― including MIT and Harvard ― have complained of labor shortages, too, though neither they nor the schools provided the Globe with data on staffing.
“I don’t know how we do it,” Bello said. “But you know why we do it? Because we have to feed our family. We have kids.”
Northeastern spokesperson Shannon Nargi said in an e-mail that the university does not directly employ dining hall staff. The halls’ staffing levels and shifts are subject to the contract negotiated by the UNITE HERE Local 26 union and the food service vendor Chartwells Higher Education, Nargi said.
Today, Northeastern has 408 food service workers, a small increase from the 390 employed by the college before COVID, according to the union. But it says the 18 added jobs were from Rebecca’s Cafe, an on-campus restaurant that closed in August 2020 and was replaced with a Chartwells cafe.
Chartwells staffs and manages dining services at 300 campuses around the United States under the umbrella of its owner, Compass Group. Its careers portal currently lists six open food service positions at the college, ranging from a grill cook to a dishwasher.
In a statement, Chartwells said it “actively recruits and hires for our open positions on Northeastern University’s campus. The external labor shortages across the city had some impact on our recruitment efforts last fall, but we have successfully hired additional associates for the spring semester.”
Food service worker Patrice Jacobs said Northeastern should have prepared the staff for an influx of students. Jacobs said she can’t leave her station until someone arrives to replace her, which often causes her to be late picking up her children from school.
Full-time employees in Northeastern’s dining hall work eight-hour shifts starting in the morning or afternoon, depending on their schedule.
Carlos Aramayo, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, said negotiations with Chartwells on a new contract are set for August. He plans to push for pay increases and better protections against staffing shortages. Currently, the minimum wage for cashiers and dishwashers is $19.95 an hour, although new hires may receive $1 less. Prep cooks are paid at least $20.25 hourly.
“There has to be a change in perspective at universities to realize that dining hall workers provide nutrition for the students and faculty of these institutions,” Aramayo said. ”They are as essential to the institution as a tenured faculty member.”
Still, the staffing issue at Northeastern likely transcends over-enrollment. The food industry has struggled with unfilled jobs since the start of the pandemic, said Stephen Zagor, a Columbia Business School professor and food services consultant. Many workers have left the industry, which is notorious for low and inconsistent pay and unreliable hours.
“Colleges and fast food are going to be the last pick for workers in the dining industry,” Zagor said.
Zagor said that Chartwells’ owner, Compass Group, tends to offer competitive benefits. But candidates are discouraged by the pay and lack of career potential, choosing instead to apply for jobs at Amazon or FedEx, for example, both of which have increased pay and benefits since the pandemic began. Plus universities “are in competition with one another for the same labor,” Zagor added.
Dining hall workers at other Boston-area colleges say they also are working harder than ever because of staff shortages.
In the early days of the pandemic, MIT cook Mike McDonald worked with people who had transferred from nearby schools whose campuses had been shuttered by COVID. (Compass Group and its subsidiary Bon Appetit allow workers to move between institutions.) When colleges reopened in full force last fall, McDonald lost that support.
Now, he chops vegetables and cooks at a station alone at New Vassar Hall, rather than with the team of three or four people that used to do the work. The rest of his shift is spent serving that food — a front-of-the-house job he never had to do before COVID. Rarely are there enough food service workers to fill the schedule.
“It’s go, go, go from when we walk in to when we leave,” McDonald said. “The school doesn’t keep up with hiring people. There’s always a shift you can fill.”
Shortages are exacerbated, he said, by extended dining hall hours MIT implemented in fall 2021. The school did not respond to multiple e-mails seeking comment.
Harvard University Dining Services is short-staffed, too, according to a Local 26 representative and reports in The Crimson. (A spokesperson for the college declined to comment on the understaffing issues or provide data on the number of food service workers at Harvard.)
The Emerson College dining workers are represented by Local 26 and hired by Bon Appétit, a subsidiary of the Compass Group, though they’ve experienced few staffing issues, according to the union.
But the college’s separate staff union also launched a Blue Valentine campaign on Instagram, advocating for several measures — including a solution to the labor shortage — in their upcoming contract. “Emerson breaks my heart because its severe understaffing is a disservice to both students and staff,” a post from @emersonstaffunion reads. “We have such a dedicated staff but need more of them so they don’t burn out from working around the clock.”
The college declined to comment.
Aramayo of UNITE HERE Local 26 said it’s up to colleges and universities to make dining hall jobs more palatable.
“We’ve got to challenge these institutions to make these jobs that people will want to choose and stay at for their careers,” Aramayo said, “so that they can buy their house, send their kids to college, and contribute to their community.”
Correction: The Emerson College dining workers are represented by UNITE HERE Local 26, not the Emerson Staff Union.