Visit any dining hall on campus this fall and you’re liable to find a sign proclaiming decreased hours, slashed services, missing menu items or temporary closures—all “due to a staffing shortage.” This is certainly disappointing for many students who enjoy certain dishes or like to get a late night snack, but it’s also revealing of a bigger problem with the way University Dining is framing this issue and their relationship to the campus community generally; a problem that (like so many) has its roots in capitalism.
UO Dining primarily profits not by selling individual meals, but by selling meal plans. These guarantee access to specific amounts of food across the halls for a set rate, are typically purchased at the start of the term, and are generally required for students living on campus. These factors mean that most students are accessing dining halls as their primary food source, and are not at liberty to change that.
As such, UO is under an obligation to provide the services, including full hours and consistent quality options for diverse diets, that were promised when students bought their meal plans. They seem to be aware of at least this much—thus, the apologetic signs. However, what they’re missing, or else refusing to acknowledge, is that their “staffing shortage” is their fault.
UO Dining seems very intent on shifting the blame for being short staffed to the myriad students choosing not to work there. “We’re hiring!”, their signs proclaim, “Ask your server for a card with the handshake link.” They’re even offering “up to $250 in incentives” for new hires who stay until December. So why doesn’t anyone want to work, they seem to be wondering.
Why the staffing shortage?
Well, what their signs don’t say is that their starting wage is a measly $13.25 an hour—barely over minimum wage. And the job posting doesn’t say anything about a raise anytime soon. The benefits listed on Handshake are a discounted meal—not even free, discounted—each day of work and the practically insulting vaguery “opportunity for advancement and development.” Advancement to where, I wonder? Development of what?
What UO Dining must understand is what anyone who’s taken an economics class can tell them: $13.25 isn’t enough for the labor they’re trying to purchase. How can we tell? Simple—people aren’t filling the positions. To fill these roles—which they are obliged to do because they’ve already agreed to offer these services—UO Dining has to be competitive, and these wages are laughably uncompetitive. In today’s labor environment, you simply cannot get away with paying that close to minimum wage for that kind of work, especially with no benefits to speak of.
This is far from the only case of businesses crying “nobody wants to work”, and every time, it’s because they pay shit wages and are shitty to work for. UO Dining shouldn’t be apologizing for being short staffed. They should be boosting their wages, expanding their benefits and improving their work environments (including covid safety), to recruit, retain and fairly treat enough employees to actually provide the services students have paid for.
Unfortunately, history shows us that they won’t likely do this of their own accord. If they can get away with just cutting back on services permanently while charging increasingly more each year, they will do so. And complaining in Student Insurgent op-eds won’t do much, so what’s a student worker to do? Rhetorical question, of course: the answer is STRIKE!
An organized coalition of campus dining workers going on strike for a single day could almost certainly raise wages by a few dollars at least, and a week could secure almost any benefits the university could offer. We should ignore anti-unionization rules and rhetoric, and look to the wider labor movement sweeping the country for comradery. If UO Dining won’t compensate us fairly for our labor, why should we let them take it?