Dining staff demands raises, benefits in union negotiations

During their first week on campus, many Class of 2025+ students were unimpressed with their initial introduction to food at Carnegie Mellon University. O-Week activities may have distracted students from the limited options available, but Carnegie Mellon dining staff were fully aware. In an interview with The Tartan, one service worker (A) who wished to remain anonymous recalled that “orientation was a wreck,” giving a glimpse into the mounting tension that has emerged between dining staff and administration.

A new contract was agreed upon on Sept. 30 after weeks of negotiations between Chartwells (Carnegie Mellon’s third-party dining management) and SEIU 32BJ (university dining staff’s workers’ union). This was confirmed in a statement by Chartwells’ PR department. The union demanded free health coverage and an 80-cent hourly raise this year, followed by 40-cent raises for the next two years, according to a staff member (B), who also wished to remain anonymous.

Had Chartwells failed to meet these demands, workers were ready to strike. The raise promised by the company was expected to take effect on Oct. 1, but staff member B said that some dining staff — who are paid weekly — have not yet seen a change in their wages. Mike Tokarek, the operational director of Chartwells at Carnegie Mellon, responded in an emailed statement that these staff members “have now been retroactively paid to reflect the raise.” Yet, service workers maintain that, as of Nov. 4, they have still not received a raise. Their health insurance is set to begin in December. The union was also able to negotiate two additional paid holidays on Juneteenth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Every five years, the contract between Carnegie Mellon University and its foodservice management expires. During this time, dining companies place bids to partner with the university. The last time this occurred — July 2018 — the university switched from CulinArt Group to Chartwells Higher Education. Both are owned by Compass Group, one of the biggest foodservice providers in the world. On its website, the parent company boasted its 2019 revenue at $20.1 billion. Chartwells Higher Education provides food services at 300 college campuses across the country, including the University of Pittsburgh. Frustrations expressed by Carnegie Mellon service workers parallel similar experiences at other schools. Northwestern and DePaul University dining staff (both managed by Chartwells) have gone on strike within the past month to demand higher wages and better benefits.

The transition to Chartwells at Carnegie Mellon was significant. “Everything was chaotic,” said service worker A. The worker described the introduction of entirely “new management … [and a] whole new staff of team members.” Changes also included remodeling, new location names, and different food concepts.

Traditionally, the next cycle of applications for new dining management would begin in the next few months (having reached the five-year mark since Chartwells began in 2018). Joe Beaman, the director of Carnegie Mellon’s Dining Services department, explained in an emailed statement to The Tartan that, “In response to the effects of COVID-19, CMU extended our contract with Chartwells for an additional two-year term.” Chartwells did not extend the same opportunity to its employees: when the pandemic hit, Chartwells froze wages for employees, forcing many to apply for unemployment compensation, according to service worker A. The issue of frozen wages was compounded by the fact that workers’ 32BJ union contract expired mid-pandemic and that Chartwells did not provide workers with health insurance.

Staff member B, who has worked at the university for nearly a decade, explained that CulinArt provided health coverage during the first few years of their contract. In contrast, Chartwells never offered coverage. The worker said this was especially difficult during the pandemic, “when everyone needed it the most.” Carnegie Mellon workers’ wages — which did not change from CulinArt to Chartwells — were also lower than their counterparts at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University. Under the Sept. 30 contract, wages are now comparable to these schools, although the 80-cent raise has yet to be reflected in workers’ weekly payments.

When Carnegie Mellon returned to in-person learning this fall, the dining staff’s focus shifted from pandemic concerns to management pandemonium. Service worker A recounted that nearly “everyone was terminated” in management; only four managers were rehired when campus food services reopened. Most of the current dining staff have cultivated long careers at the university and returned this year. This has caused tension between workers who are already familiar with their jobs and management that is fairly new to the scene, according to worker B. The worker said that many of the new managers correct veteran staff members on routines they have been performing for years and “don’t know how to talk to the employees.” In one incident, a manager reportedly grabbed a staff member by the wrist in a demonstration of force. Workers filed a grievance through the union in response. Chartwells administration reprimanded the manager, who has acted more respectfully but “still doesn’t know how to talk to people,” according to the same worker.

Part of the problem stems from Chartwells’ lack of training and team building for its employees, according to staff member B. The worker lamented that the company does not currently require managers to undergo sensitivity training and that they “take their time getting back to” service workers’ questions. In years past, CulinArt hosted a meeting for all staff members to “boost morale” each fall. No such large-scale, organized gathering has occurred since Chartwells assumed management operations. “It’s not even fun anymore to come to work. We used to have a blast,” the worker reminisced. “I just want this company to go, to be honest.”

In an emailed statement to The Tartan, Tokarek wrote that while Chartwells does require “a variety of training programs … we recognize that these were not prioritized as they should have been when associates were onboarded this year.” In recent weeks, Chartwells has initiated sensitivity training into “daily huddles” and team meetings “to make sure the messaging is consistent, ongoing and heard by all.”

Work has also been busier since the pandemic due to a debilitating staff shortage. Tokarek suggested that this was concurrent with national labor shortages seen in recent months. The company has been attempting to garner new hires by streamlining the application process and implementing signing bonuses and extra benefits. In response to staff shortages, dining locations have become increasingly reliant on outsourced vendors, prepackaged foods, and earlier closing times. According to Beaman, the dining team is encouraging students to seek part-time employment with Carnegie Mellon food services.

Chartwells told union members it had not received any applicants “with clean background checks,” according to service worker B, who was skeptical of this explanation. The worker’s mistrust of management also stems from its ambiguity in posting position announcements. When a new spot opens, they explained, Chartwells seldom announces it publicly, tending to favor new hires over veteran employees. “Chartwells does whatever it wants,” the worker said with a shrug.

Chartwells’ vagueness particularly comes into focus at Entropy+, the aptly-named market on campus. Whereas CulinArt included visible prices on all its products, Chartwells consistently excludes sale labels, according to worker A. In some Entropy sections — including the chip, candy, and canned food aisles — no prices are listed at all. In others, price tags are sparsely and often incorrectly matched to items. On Oct. 13, for example, Daiya Cheddar Style Cheezy Mac was marked as Gnocchi Cauliflower ($9.99). Its correct label (“Daiya Cheddar”), hanging below a row of Cocoa Loco Chewy Bars, listed the price as $6.99. The same box can be bought at Target for $4.19, 40 percent less than the Entropy price. “Prices have gotten outrageous,” service worker B said, adding that each year, students watch the expense for shampoo (currently missing a price tag) and other commodities creep higher.

Another difference between CulinArt and Chartwells is the food itself. The former company, according to staff member B, ensured all meals were made in-house with fresh ingredients. Chartwells, in comparison, relies more heavily on outsourced, pre-packaged sandwiches. Carnegie Mellon’s Red Plan is currently 145 percent more expensive than the national average among university meal plans. Pizza that was once made from scratch under CulinArt is now baked from thawed dough shipped frozen to campus, members of the Class of 2025+ were served undercooked chicken during O-week, and students have reported moldy food at various locations across campus.

Many workers are hopeful that conditions will improve with time and, more importantly, the implementation of the Sept. 30 contract.