MDining workers continue speaking out against working conditions after strike cancellation

Monday, October 12, 2020 - 4:04pm

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Illustration by Caitlin Martens

 

LSA senior Mak Guenther, who had been employed by MDining since her freshman year and was working in Mosher-Jordan dining hall this year, quit her job three weeks ago. 

According to Guenther, Mosher-Jordan was getting 1,000 more students than other dining halls. When Guenther asked her management and MDining administrators about efforts being made to mitigate this influx of students, she said she only got vague to no responses and saw no change.

“It was like pulling teeth to get answers,” Guenther said. “I had to let it go because of how horrible the response has been.” 

Guenther said quitting was the best thing she could do for the strike efforts because she made it clear that she was leaving due to what she felt were unsafe working conditions.

“Immediate managers were really great and it felt like they were on our side and they were also trying to get the answers for us,” Guenther said. “But from the wider dining administration, (I felt) just absolutely undervalued, very taken advantage of and just completely disrespected after sending in questions over and over and over again and never getting answers back.”

Guenther isn’t alone in raising concern over MDining. Members of MDining had planned a walkout due to these concerns in solidarity with the September graduate student and resident adviser strikes. The walkout was postponed and changed to a work “slow down” out of fear of retaliation. 

Despite this action, student workers said they still feel unheard by administrators and will continue to push for changes in their workplace. With the dining halls open, MDining workers complete shifts in-person, which they say elevates the need for a response to their pandemic-related concerns.

LSA senior Nik Von Seggern, who also worked in Mosher-Jordan dining, took a break from working due to what she also felt were unsafe conditions. 

According to Von Seggern, the workers were not provided with disposable masks as they had been told they would be. She said they had to use the University-provided cloth masks which some MDining workers felt were inadequate.

Though there is a sick bank for workers to get paid sick leave, Von Seggern said many student workers used this bank back in March.

“When we were all laid off, most workers took their sick bank,” Von Seggern said. “Now, when we come back, the pandemic is arguably worse than what it was, or we know more about it than what we did — there’s no sick bank.”

Student MDining workers have been circulating a petition demanding increased workplace protections that has garnered more than 450 signatures at the time of publication. 

The petition calls for more testing, paid sick leave, severance pay for the remainder of the academic year if dining halls were to close again, transparent contact tracing, adequate sanitation and personal protective equipment and consistent COVID-19 policies for all units.

Steve Mangan, senior director of Michigan Dining, said disposable masks would be available for any worker who didn’t have one in an email sent Wednesday to MDining student staff and obtained by The Michigan Daily.

According to Mangan’s email, there is a one-time sick bank of up to 80 hours of paid leave offered for MDining workers. He addressed that many students may have used this bank in March and April, and he said that it is not available for employees hired after June 7.

“For those student employees concerned with our attendance policy, our philosophy of ‘don’t come to work if you are sick’ is still the guiding principle,” Mangan wrote. “Any absence related to COVID (going for a test, required quarantine/ isolation, etc.) will continue to be excused with no repercussions.”

In an email to The Daily, Mangan said if student employees used up all of their eligible paid time off, there is no further paid time off unless that employee meets the criteria of the Michigan Paid Medical Leave Act.

According to this act, employees may take paid medical leave for situations such as physical or mental illness or injury to the employee or a family member and preventative care for the employee or a family member. Paid medical leave is accrued at one hour for every 35 actual hours worked. 

Public Policy senior Nora Hilgart-Griff, who works at the Blue Cafe in East Quad Residence Hall, is in her third year of working with MDining. Employees in her unit wrote an email to management citing concerns about COVID-19 screening before shifts, access to personal protective equipment and being able to take off work due to COVID-19 related concerns without consequence.

According to Hilgart-Griff, there was previously no protocol for the health screening employees are required to fill out before each shift. She said she had to take it upon herself to make a sign-in sheet for it and ask other student managers to ensure workers were self-screening before their shift.

Her unit sent an email to Blue Cafe management, and she said there is now a screening protocol put in place.

“Some of (our concerns) have been addressed, which I do really appreciate,” Hilgart-Griff said. “But at the same time, it’s stuff that never should have been a concern because it’s basic things that should have been in place for our safety from the get-go.”

LSA senior Charity Garner, who works in North Quad dining hall, also said that while she felt her direct managers have been responsible, she is frustrated with administration.

“I feel like student workers get babied… within administration,” Garner said. “We don’t get incorporated into the decision-making … Without taking students’ input in their decisions, they’re playing a dangerous game.”

Garner said she emailed the North Quad MDining administration and received a response with some unit-specific changes, but MDining did not address concerns regarding increased coronavirus testing and sick leave.

The email from Mangan to MDining staffers said the new saliva tests acquired by the University mid-September will allow for more students to get tested per week. 

“Currently, we have made special arrangements for all Dining student employees to sign up weekly for priority surveillance COVID testing,” Mangan wrote. 

In an email to The Daily, Mangan elaborated that all dining staff, including students, would be eligible for a weekly test through the Community Sampling and Tracking Program by making an appointment.

Looking ahead, Hilgart-Griff said she was not optimistic about the future of MDining, saying coronavirus has been “mismanaged” at the University.

“I don’t see (University administration) really buckling down and taking things seriously and making it a priority to care for students and for employees,” Hilgart-Griff said.

According to LSA senior Rebecca Poirier, MDining leadership is planning to open up the dining halls to dine in for students this month. Her petition, which had 353 signatures as of Oct. 10, calls for the dining halls to not open up for dine in.

“A lot of people that I talked to were upset about (the decision), but they felt like they couldn’t speak out against it because they’re like ‘I need this job,’ ‘I can’t quit’ and ‘I don’t want to get fired for saying anything,’” Poirier said. “So I was like, ‘Okay, I need to do this for myself but also for my coworkers and the people that they go home to,’ so that’s why I made the petition.”

Poirier, who is in her fifth year working with MDining, said a lot of the comments left on the petition include concerns from MDining workers or students with meal plans.

“I’ve seen people saying ‘As a student with a meal plan, I’m not going to be comfortable coming into the dining hall anymore, so I’m going to want a refund on my meal plan,’ or ‘As a worker, this isn’t what I signed up for, we’re in a pandemic, why do they think this is a good idea,’ stuff like that,” Poirier said.

Daily Staff Reporter Iulia Dobrin can be reached at idobrin@umich.edu.

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