Families working for Chartwells, CMU dining remain optimistic

Carnegie Mellon Dining Services employees have a rich history of coalition and bonding — from summer picnics to vacations, university-hosted Christmas parties, and more — that goes far beyond workplace small talk. Liz Stanton, the cashier at Hamburg Hall’s Heinz Café, proudly told me that she has every employee’s number. So basically, they’re family.

Yes, some of them are actually family. Many of the dining staff are members of a collection of Pittsburgh families making up the 118 workers of Chartwells Higher Education, the current management company of around half of Carnegie Mellon University’s 34 dining locations. The new dining services provider on campus, Chartwells, started here July 1 of last year.

Stanton, who has worked here at Carnegie Mellon alongside many of her siblings and nieces over the past 14 years, sat down with The Tartan to go over the history of Carnegie Mellon dining, and address the dynamics of family involvement and the various management companies that she has seen over the years.

When Stanton first came to Carnegie Mellon, the management company overseeing dining was Parkhurst, but their contract soon ended, putting CulinArt in charge. Stanton informed us that things got progressively worse over CulinArts contract with Carnegie Mellon, in terms of both communication and performance. Bidding for a new contract went up, and Chartwells has taken over since.

Chartwells’s recent role at Carnegie Mellon has not been without controversy, such as its recent firing of five full-time workers — down from an initially proposed 18 — in violation of a union contract with 32BJ SEIU, the workers’ union. Multiple workers came back from their Christmas break to a part-time downgrade, temporarily losing the benefits that come with full-time status.

Article 8 of the contract between the SEIU and Chartwells promises job priority for full-time union employees over part-time employees, and, after a complicated dispute involving workers, students, dining services, and the union, the workers got their jobs and benefits back.

The downgrade the workers faced was, as detailed by Stanton, undoubtedly distressing: the full-time hourly rate of $15.00 to a part-time $9.50, the loss of health insurance, and the corresponding inability to provide for the family, prospect of sicknesses that can’t be covered out of pocket, and bills on top of it all.

Stanton, in the context of the dilemma, emphasized the importance of family: “If one’s hurting, I’m hurting. We all helped each other out when they brought about this change. We all stuck together until everyone could get back on their feet.”

And while the recent incident with Chartwells was tough, Stanton is keeping her head up. “Change is good; there’s always something good in change,” she said. “We’re working together with Chartwells to make everything better for everyone.”

Stanton explained, “We know students down here on a first name basis. I’ve met so many great people, and we take care of one another down here. The students are a part of our family because we feed them and see them every day. We’re all family-oriented that way,” and reflected on students who have brought her souvenirs from their trips to places like Madrid or London.

With the tight bonds between workers and students, it makes sense that students played an important role in the recent Chartwells dispute. During the period that workers either lost jobs or faced downgrades, a delegation of students took things up with Pascal Petter, the Director of Dining Services, and Jeff Sinciline, Chartwells Resident District Manager, asking Chartwells to comply with the aforementioned SEIU Article 8 via a petition.

Stanton said, “They did a wonderful job,” also noting that the union, whose members include almost everyone working for Carnegie Mellon Dining Services, participated in a similar petition.

Traci Benjamin, SEIU Communications Specialist, was happy with the outcome. “Because of student support and union support, we were able to reach an amicable decision. The students proved to be an extension of the food service family. You can’t put a price tag on that," she said.
As it stands, the current union contract with Chartwells is set to finish in 2020. Workers are looking forward to reaching an agreement with the contractor that will allow them to continue supporting their families and the communities in which they live.