U of M pays gig workers more than full-time staff to fill dining hall jobs

I downloaded an app and in about 20 minutes became a cook earning more than the woman who trained me

By: - November 4, 2022 8:35 am

The University of Minnesota has turned to gig workers and out-of-state temp workers to staff its dining halls, which are short more than 120 workers. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The University of Minnesota’s dining halls have never been so short-staffed, at least as far back as Mick Kelly can remember. He’s been a cook at the university for 20 years.

More than 120 positions out of around 300 are vacant in dining services at the university’s Twin Cities campus alone. The lack of workers has forced the university to curtail dining hall hours, cut some food offerings, and then, in response to complaints from students, issue partial refunds for September and October.

“It’s never been like this,” Kelly said. “The reality is these are poverty wage jobs. It’s just that simple. As a result, people do not wish to work here.”

A new cook with two years of experience starts at less than $20 an hour. Many other dining hall workers earn less than $16 an hour. On the whole, workers in dining services and other campus operations jobs earn 13% less than the market rate, according to the university’s own analysis.

To fill scores of positions, the university’s dining managers have turned to gig workers, paying them as much as 35% more per hour than full-time staff. But there’s also a shortage of gig workers, so dining services has contracted with a company to fly in more than 30 workers from out of state, paying for their airfare and hotel rooms.

“They’re very expensive,” said Dawn Aubrey, vice president of operations for Chartwells, a private company which manages the university’s dining halls. “Simply there weren’t enough temporary workers here in the area.”

The university’s struggle is illustrative of the state’s worker shortage and rock-bottom unemployment rate, which dipped to 1.8% in September, the lowest ever recorded in the United States.

The persistent labor shortage and high inflation are pushing up pay after years of stagnation, with some of the biggest gains going to lower paid service workers. However, even as new workers win raises, loyal employees feel left behind.

Full-time employees at the university, who are unionized with the Teamsters Local 320, have better benefits than temp workers — quality health insurance, a pension and paid time off. But temp workers at the university have leap-frogged full time workers in terms of hourly pay, which has aggravated tensions between the university and its service employees.

Many service workers at the university struggle to pay rent and buy groceries, according to a recent survey. Nearly 1 in 10 have experienced homelessness while working for the university.

Mick Kelly, a union steward with the Teamsters Local 320, has worked in dining services at the University of Minnesota for 20 years. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

“To me, it demonstrates the University of Minnesota has plenty of funding to pay Teamsters a living wage, but instead is choosing to hire temp workers as a short-term solution, which is no solution at all,” said Kelly.

Some 1,500 unionized service workers across the university’s five campuses threatened to go on strike last month before ratifying a new three-year contract on Thursday that increases the minimum wage from $15 to $20 an hour.

While a higher minimum wage will likely alleviate the university’s labor shortage, workers are skeptical $20 an hour is enough to fill their ranks and expect the use of temporary workers to continue.

The reliance on temp workers raised suspicions of union busting during contentious labor negotiations. Those suspicions were heightened by the fact that the university wasn’t posting all the union jobs that were open even as dining managers brought in temporary workers.

Dining services is also under new management. While full-time dining hall staff are employees of the university, their bosses work for a private contractor: Chartwells, a subsidiary of a British multinational food service company called Compass Group, which took over management of dining services in April.

A spokesman for the university directed questions about hiring practices, training and wages to Chartwells, but said it’s the university’s preference to have dining facilities staffed entirely by full-time employees.

“University-employed dining staff play a critical role in the experience of our students,” University of Minnesota Director of Public Relations Jake Ricker wrote in an email.

Aubrey, the operations manager for Chartwells, adamantly rebutted the allegation that they hope to replace union workers with gig workers.

“We prefer Teamsters,” Aubrey said. “We see great value in having Teamsters, who are full time, who are committed to the location. We don’t see that level of commitment from temporaries.”

You’re hired 

The constant turnover in the dining halls makes working there like playing in a band with strangers who can’t read music. Kelly said gig workers from an app called BlueCrew will show up, work just one shift and never return.

“One shift and that’s the last you’ll see of them,” Kelly told me in an interview last month. “You could apply for Blue Crew and you could be here (soon) after.”

Later that day, I downloaded the BlueCrew app and created an account with my Reformer email. The app opened to a map showing dozens of job openings in dining halls on the Twin Cities campus, including cashier, food service worker, dishwasher and cook.

I selected “cook” because it paid the most — $22.55 —  and took a weekend shift at Pioneer Hall, the largest dining facility at the university.

I had never cooked in a commercial kitchen before, but the app didn’t ask me about my qualifications. There were only three job requirements to get hired: Be able to stand eight hours at a time; have closed-toed shoes; and be able to pass a background check.

I showed up that Saturday at 6 a.m. in the requisite black shoes and pants and waited in the lobby of Pioneer Hall for the manager to let me in. I expected he would ask me why I wanted to work there or about my recent work experience. I would have been truthful.

But the only question he asked me was: “Student or BlueCrew?”

I replied, “BlueCrew,” and he handed me a couple of rags and told me to start wiping hardened BBQ sauce and other crud off the plexiglass sneeze-guards.

Tammy Sanchez has worked in dining services at the University of Minnesota for 23 years. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

When I finished that, he dropped me off at the bakery section to help Tammy Sanchez, a 23-year veteran in the dining hall.

She showed me where to set platters of mini cinnamon rolls and how to brew the coffee (with two filters to prevent grounds from leaking out). She handled baking the croissants, which required knowing how to use the commercial grade oven.

Sanchez, 54, is popular among the staff at Pioneer Hall, who practically line up at the bakery section to get a hug and tell her about their weekends and doctors’ appointments. Part of the draw is getting a rice krispy treat in the afternoon when she pulls out a large sheet to cut into individual pieces.

In an interview after I worked two shifts, Sanchez told me she earns about $20.70 an hour — $2 an hour less than I made working for BlueCrew. Sanchez often works more than 55 hours a week in the dining hall. Many Saturdays and Sundays she works from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. The extra money lets her spoil her grandkids and save for the summer when there’s less work on campus.

With so few staff, overtime is practically guaranteed for anyone who wants it and has the time. Kelly, the veteran cook, said he often works 70 hours a week, but was quick to add, “overtime is not a solution to poverty.”

In addition to showing me what to do, Sanchez also made sure I took my lunch break. Free all-you-can-eat food is a major perk of the job, although taking meals home is forbidden. In an interview later, Sanchez said she knows parents who’ve struggled to feed their kids and at least a few workers who are currently homeless.

That means workers are well fed, even if they sometimes can’t afford groceries for their children, which Sanchez has witnessed. A few years ago, Sanchez and her fiance, a cook in Pioneer Hall, took in one of their co-workers.

“He would actually stay on the streets,” Sanchez said. “It was winter months, and I just wasn’t having that. I said, ‘You’re coming home with us.’”

(He stayed with them until he was able to get his own place. He’s still housed and employed, though he’s left the university.)

Sanchez said she can relate to the financial strain her younger co-workers feel working for the university, especially those with children who can’t put in the overtime that Sanchez does.

“When I started, I was poor,” Sanchez said. “It was hard. Single mom. Four kids. But now I can give my grandkids better than what their parents had.”

Sanchez said she appreciates the value of the benefits. She’s encouraged temp workers to become Teamsters to get the pension and the health insurance that allowed her to get two knee replacements when she needed them.

But she said it hurts that she earns less per hour than someone working on their first day.

“Twenty-three years is a long time, and then for people just to come in with a temp service and make more than me … It’s a little upsetting,” Sanchez said.

Having to constantly teach new employees without any additional compensation has also sowed distrust between the university and its workers.

“We always have to train them, and we don’t have the time,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got deadlines, too.”

In the two days I spent working at Pioneer Hall, I rarely did anything deserving of the title cook.

I swiped students’ dining cards alongside a second-year medical student who earns $15.25 an hour. I vacuumed floors and wiped tables alongside Teamster custodial workers who start at about $16 an hour.

I did get to flip hamburgers on the large commercial range, after a veteran cook showed me how to line up 28 thin patties on the grill and properly season them without overcooking them.

Reformer reporter Max Nesterak worked as a temporary cook at the University of Minnesota. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Given the upward wage pressures, university employees say it’s not uncommon for workers to be hired as cooks to do custodial work and food preparation.

Aubrey, the operations executive, said workers are allowed to do tasks in lower-paid positions, but lower paid workers aren’t allowed to do higher-paid tasks.

Aubrey said the gig worker wages are set by BlueCrew based on local market conditions. A spokesperson for BlueCrew said the company does suggest wages but that decision ultimately lies with the employer.

How much temp workers will ultimately cost the university is unclear. Aubrey said Chartwells is eating the cost of employing gig workers. She said BlueCrew workers are slightly less expensive than union employees, even with the roughly 35% premium BlueCrew charges for its services. A spokesperson for BlueCrew said the company would not confirm its fees.

Workers from Texas and elsewhere employed by a Florida-based company called Chef on the Fly are much more expensive, but Aubrey did not provide specifics.

She said Chartwells is reducing its reliance on gig workers as it’s able to hire more Teamster employees and noted a recent ad campaign on the lightrail aimed at recruiting more workers.

The lack of specifics about the costs of temps concerns union leaders, who say third-party management has led to a lack of transparency.

“This whole institution has real accountability problems, and this is a perfect example of that,” said Jackson Kerr, an assistant business agent with the Teamsters Local 320. “(It’s) black hole that all this money is pouring into.”

Optimism over the new contract

The new minimum wage the union won is a major increase over the 5% increase the university offered in “last, best and final” offer to workers before they voted to strike.

But workers are skeptical that a $20 an hour minimum wage is enough to fill their ranks.

“I don’t really think that’s going to fix it,” said Mike Johnson, who’s been a cook at the university for 22 years. “In institutional cooking, $20 is the minimum … and they’re still short in all the hospitals and everywhere else.”

Aubrey offered a decidedly neutral assessment, since Chartwells doesn’t negotiate wages with workers: “I believe that the university in good faith made the best offer that they could.”

Under the agreement, workers at the bottom of the payscale will see the biggest gains. Longtime employees like Sanchez, Johnson and Kelly, who have hit the ceiling of the payscale, will receive more moderate pay increases of 5% in the first year. That means they won’t be making much more than new employees. And given that inflation is at a 40 year high just above 8%, their 5% increase isn’t an increase in real terms.

“It should be more, but I’m also happy for the people that were under ($20 an hour),” Sanchez said.

Sanchez’s son works in a dining hall at the university and will see his wages rise from $16.

“I said, ‘You know, you are so fortunate that you just bumped up because of the union … it took Mom 23 years just to get to where you just got,’” Sanchez said.

Editor’s note: Reporter Max Nesterak never misrepresented himself, as dictated by Reformer ethics rules. All interviews were conducted with permission from the speakers.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.