University Food Service Workers Air Grievances to Students

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Clark Kerr dorm residents found themselves receiving more than just hash browns and eggs on Saturday morning as cafeteria workers and union representatives dished out their grievances against the university, appealing to students to fight for workers' rights.

A lack of staffing, unfair wages and a lack of respect from management were high on the list of concerns voiced by members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

Workers complained that understaffing, a problem prevalent in all university dining facilities, creates more injuries on the job.

"When you are trying to do more than one person's job, injuries happen-people hurt their backs, their wrists-they have all sorts of ergonomic injuries," said John Sims, a food service worker and AFSCME member. "But the university makes no accommodations for them. This is very disrespectful to senior employees."

Such is the case with Luis Ruiz, a cafeteria cook who attributes his weakened nerves and tendons and current loss of 25 percent of his hand movement to being overworked during his 21 years in dining services. Ruiz has been told by his physician that he can only do 20 minutes to an hour of carving and working on the kettle a day.

"If they had more personnel in the kitchen, I can honestly say that I would not have the injury that I have now," he said.

The university's apparent unresponsiveness to his injury has been a constant source of worry and frustration for Ruiz, who said accommodations are not being made for his disability-a problem he said could be easily solved if he was allowed to work in another capacity.

Ruiz is currently filing a lawsuit against the university for failing to accommodate his disability.

"I have given the best of my years and worked hard to please the university," he said. "This adds insult to injury."

University officials, however, said the majority of injuries are not as much due to understaffing as to lack of attention on the job.

"You can be fully staffed and people will still get injured," said Harry Le Grande, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Residential and Student Services. "People get injured more because they don't follow directions, or they are not familiar with the equipment they are working with."

Staff shortages also lead to decreased food quality, putting students at risk, Sims said.

"I am sure that at one time any student has bit into a piece of chicken and found it not completely done, or chewed a piece of bread that was not completely baked, and that was because you have one person doing the work of three people," he said.

But for Housing and Dining officials, the persistent complaints regarding lack of staffing remain puzzling in light of recent changes made to solve the problem.

An agreement with the union two months ago guaranteed that 100 workers would be converted to "career status" employees, meaning they will receive benefits and work more hours, Le Grande said.

"I'm puzzled that we are still short-staffed after this agreement," he said. "This should have helped the labor situation instead of making it worse."

Cafeteria management said any staff shortages are due more to worker absenteeism than anything else.

"Staffing is not a problem right now," said Assistant Director of Housing and Dining Services Arvell Howell. "What tends to be the problem is that five people will be scheduled to work, and one or two don't show up for work, putting more work for everybody else."

While AFSCME members admit that absenteeism may be part of the problem, they said it falls upon the employer to make sure there are enough people to work on a certain day.

"Responsible employers have float crews to pick up the extra work when someone doesn't show up," said AFSCME Spokesperson Jose Martinez. "People get sick, and there will be days when they will not be able to be there-that should not mean that other workers have to suffer."

The proposal of a "matrix" to list the standard number of workers needed for certain jobs in the dining halls was supported by AFSCME members, but management ultimately never pursued the idea.

"A staffing matrix does not always work because depending on the type of operation you are running, sometimes you need more people, and sometimes you can manage with less," Howell said.

Food service worker frustrations have been compounded by a recent proposal to put all jobs up for bid going to those with the highest seniority in May.

"Restructuring with the 'position draw' provides the opportunity for people with the most seniority to choose better shifts and to choose where they work," said Assistant Director of Human Resources Brenda Greenwood. "We are waiting to hear the input of the workers before we make a decision, however."

AFSCME members said they want more than just "input" on the position draw, which they claim favors employees who have had career status longer but who may not have been employed for as long of a time as "casual" employees who have only recently obtained career status.

"When they told us they would restructure dining services, we thought they would change the management," said Maria Ventura, who has worked in dining services for 18 years. "This will only pit workers against workers."

Other employees said understaffing makes life in general difficult.

"I am 57 years old," said Clark Kerr employee Olivia Harvey. "I shouldn't have to worry every night over whether there will be enough people there the next day to handle the work or whether I have to be doing someone else's job."

Ralph Nader, who spoke at the Clark Kerr Campus Friday afternoon, inspired attending employees to mobilize student support against the university. Nader used a student movement at Harvard University in the early 1990's, which forced the university to raise custodial worker wages after students took over a campus building, as a model for UC Berkeley students to follow.


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