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CulinArt workers receive wage increase after struggling with being underpaid

The day-to-day activities of a typical Carnegie Mellon student involve interacting with many different people. This ranges from our classmates to our friends and professors. Also serving an integral part in the everyday lives of Carnegie Mellon students are the CulinArt employees who provide us with our food and beverages (coffee for many) to help us get through the day. The CulinArt employees play an important role in the inner workings and success of the Carnegie Mellon community, but how well have their paychecks reflected this?

Many of the CulinArt employees at Carnegie Mellon have engaged in a long and arduous struggle to acquire decent payment. Their fight to be heard finally came to fruition on Sept. 23 when, in a 44–3 decision, workers voted to enact a new contract that would gradually increase their wages to be over $16.75 during the next four years. $16.75 is a massive leap for Production 1 workers (those who provide us with our food), who now make up to only $13.35 an hour. Many workers make even less than this.

$13.35 is not nearly enough money for workers to make a decent living, especially with the responsibility of taking care of their families. Not only were workers desperate for change, but they were also fueled by the knowledge that they were being drastically underpaid when compared to Production 1 workers at the University of Pittsburgh (Sodexo) and Duquesne University (Parkhurst).

Compared to the $13.35 CulinArt workers currently make, Sodexo workers make up to $15.92 and Parkhurst workers make up to $15.65. This new contract will not just close the wage gap between CulinArt, Sodexo, and Parkhurst workers, but will also place CulinArt workers ahead of the other two.

The Tartan spoke with Takeisha Johnson and Ericka Coleman, two CulinArt employees, to get their perspectives on the challenges they face with being underpaid and how this new contract will positively impact their lives.

Coleman, who has been a CulinArt employee for two and a half years, can be seen at Rothberg’s Roasters II in Scott Hall. Every Sunday through Thursday, she wakes up at 5 a.m. to tend to her 13-year-old and 20-month-old daughters and 5-year-old son before she gets ready for her 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift.

Johnson, who has been a CulinArt employee for eight years, can be seen at the Downtown Deli of the Cohon Center. She wakes up at 5:50 a.m. to help her 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son get ready for school before she arrives at 8:30 a.m. to start gathering the food for her 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift at the deli.

Coleman and Johnson love interacting with the Carnegie Mellon students that visit their dining areas, and love when students thank them and acknowledge their service. However, sometimes the struggle to acquire enough money to live a comfortable life can take its toll. “Everyday people ask me ‘Hi Ericka, how are you?’ and my response is I am overworked and underpaid,” Coleman said. She initially made $9.50 during her first three years as a CulinArt employee before receiving a gradual raise to $12.02, which she believes just wasn’t enough.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ represents the approximately 80 full time CulinArt workers. Ryan Terrill, SEIU’s Lead Representative, noted the wall of separation and inequality that can exist between CulinArt workers and much of the rest of the Carnegie Mellon community. “On a campus like this where there is so much wealth, for inequality to happen here is really shocking. I think people should be aware of it.” Terrell said. “The people that provide service here are not robots, they are people with families, children, and dreams.” He further states, “In the same way the students come here with hopes and aspirations, there is also the idea that the people working here also have hopes and aspirations.”

After Friday’s decision, Johnson expressed that she was excited that this wage increase will help her to support her family and will allow her to achieve the goals she has set for her children. She points out that she has a daughter who is currently a senior in high school and the extra money she will be acquiring will help her daughter make a successful transition to college. This additional money will also allow her to save enough money to pursue her own dreams.

Coleman and Johnson praise the professors at Carnegie Mellon who are always open to listening about their struggles and even take the time out to try and help. Gina Stanton, a Production 2 cook at Resnik, applauded the Carnegie Mellon students and professors who were an instrumental part in this new contract being negotiated. It was the collaboration of these individuals, the CulinArt workers, and the SEIU team that allowed the 80 full time CulinArt workers to receive this new contract, which will allow them to support their families, live more comfortable lives, and give back to the Pittsburgh community.

SEIU currently doesn’t represent the other approximately 40 part-time CulinArt workers, but is seeking to change this and bargain a contract that will support them as well.