Courtesy of the CCSU website
Memorial Hall which houses the cafeteria at CCSU (Courtesy of the CCSU website)

Uncertainty is weighing heavily on the shoulders of cafeteria and dining hall workers at the four regional state universities seeking answers about the future of their jobs come fall. Feeling as though they are not being given a voice, nor respect regarding school reopening conversations, they say they are upset about being called part of a community, but not being treated as such.

At a Wednesday press conference, Gov. Ned Lamont offered some insight as to what higher education will look like in Connecticut in the fall. President of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) Mark Ojakian said that reopening college campuses in the fall will not be a one-size-fits-all approach and will be adapted institution by institution.

“The one consistent theme will be that we will not reopen until there is reasonable assurance that all our campus communities can go back to school and be healthy and safe,” said Ojakian.

So with no definitive word whether fall semesters at Western, Eastern, Central and Southern Connecticut State University will be held on campus or online, food service workers fear their jobs are in jeopardy and their livelihoods are at stake.

“The universities we work for say we are an important part of the community, but then don’t treat us like the community, because other workers at these schools have a safety net right now. They know they have jobs and health insurance and will be paid, even if classes are held online in the fall. We don’t,” said Ken Blair, President of Local 217 Unite Here, representing just under 400 food service workers at the four state universities.

Blair, a chef at ECSU for the past 17 years, explained that food service workers have their health insurance paid through August 31, but beyond that, no one knows what will happen, and there is no communication or information available.

The university cafeteria workers are not employed by the schools directly. Instead, they are employed by two private contractor companies: Sodexo and Chartwells, a division of the Compass Group. This arrangement has made it difficult to get answers, according to the union, with the food service workers caught in the middle. 

“The safety and security of our employees, customers and communities are our top priority,” a Sodexo spokesperson said in an email. “Our intent is to bring employees back to campus as soon as operations resume. As always, we will adjust our operations to be in accordance with state, local and CDC guidelines.”

Representatives of Compass could not be reached for comment.

During a Zoom call held earlier this week, the university food service workers discussed their frustrations and concerns.

“If it weren’t for the government stepping in with the enhanced unemployment, many of us would have to be living on $200 or $300 a week right now, not knowing what’s going to happen next for us,” said Blair. “The schools didn’t step up to help us and the companies we work for didn’t step up to help us.”

Looking for answers elsewhere, Local 217 has been in contact with representatives from CSCU. Referencing a call held earlier that day on April 3, Chris Henderson of CSCU wrote an email to Blair stating, “We think it important to ensure we share the same understanding, as stated at the beginning of our call, including the fact that your members are not employed by the CSCU. Our conversations are not a labor-management meeting, as we have no such relationship with your organization or members … ”

Henderson continued, “We are committed to supporting all our community partners to the best of our ability during this difficult time … We encourage you and your members to communicate with their direct employers on making improvements to communication channels. We thank you again for your time and will be in touch with you when we have more information to share.”

The communication issue is frustrating to workers. 

Pam Gray, who has been working at SCSU’s cafeteria for the past 29 years, said the students love her and call her “Mom.”

“I’m part of their family and I love it,” said Gray, who wants to be notified about her job and healthcare moving forward. “I just want to be respected. Let us know what’s going on.”

Gray is fearful, not only about her financial state, but also her physical health. She recently had a heart and kidney transplant and said that if her healthcare is cut off at the end of August, it will be very difficult for her to get medication she needs.

“I’ve worked at Western Connecticut for the past 20 years and I know these are unprecedented times,” said Trisha DeCastro. “We are not asking for special treatment, we just want to know if we will have jobs and healthcare coverage and no one is giving us answers.”

She added, “The food service workers are just as big a part of the universities as the teachers are, and we have not been treated right. Not directly connecting with us isn’t right. We need to be treated equally. The schools don’t run without us.”

Agreeing with DeCastro, Frank Petraccone, who works at CCSU, said, “No one seems to know what is happening. There is a real lack of communication.”

But are there answers to be given right now?

According to Edward Osborn from university relations at ECSU, the answer is no. No decisions have been made yet regarding the fall semester.

“We are reviewing our options in collaboration with other members of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System,” Osborn wrote in an email.

Leigh Appleby, director of communications for CSCU, said there has been constant communication with all constituencies.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, CSCU has been in constant communication with all the unions representing our employees,” Appleby said. “We have responded quickly to inquiries from Unite Here, despite the fact that their members are not CSCU employees. We met with members of their leadership team, as they represent community partners, and we understand that many of their members are going through difficult economic times. We will continue to communicate with the union regarding operations plans for the fall semester and beyond. The health of our students, faculty, and staff will continue to be our top priority as we work on potential plans to re-open our campuses, and central to any plan will be ensuring that anyone working or studying on our campuses has access to materials necessary to keep themselves and others safe.”

Stuck in a holding pattern like many other workers throughout the state and country, the food service and cafeteria workers are waiting and hoping for answers soon.