Dining hall workers say University of Minnesota reneged on summer jobs offer

By: - March 22, 2023 7:45 am

Dozens of University of Minnesota dining hall workers expect to be laid off this summer but won't be eligible for unemployment benefits. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Dining hall workers say the University of Minnesota is backing out of a key commitment it made last fall that helped avert a strike by some 1,500 cooks, custodians, mechanics and other service workers.

Workers say the university assured them there would be jobs on campus available in the summer months after students leave and most dining services shut down. But now at least 50 dining hall staff are expected to be laid off at the end of the semester, according to the Teamsters Local 320, the union representing the workers.

Hourly workers at schools and universities aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits during the summer in Minnesota, which is why the union touted a summer jobs guarantee as a major victory.

There was no guarantee in writing, however. The labor agreement between the university and the union states that being a 12-month employee “does not guarantee that work will be available for 12 months.”

Instead, the contract says the university would try to provide as much work as possible year round and would assign jobs to dining hall staff in other departments like groundskeeping or housing as needed.

Teamsters Local 320 representative Jackson Kerr says the language around summer jobs in the contract was revived from earlier labor agreements. Those contracts also said the university would try to provide summer jobs for everyone, and virtually any worker who wanted one did.

“Effectively, people were guaranteed a position even if it wasn’t in writing,” Kerr said.

The summer jobs provision was scrapped several years ago, and the union said they were led to believe that bringing it back was a good enough guarantee.

“We had every reason to believe that there were going to be summer jobs. I think the U proved to be very disingenuous,” said Mick Kelly, who’s worked as a cook at the university for 21 years.

Even without a written guarantee, the union is considering legal action for unfair labor practices.

A spokesperson for the university shared a statement saying they expect to have 95 summer jobs with at least 30 hours per week for “select” dining hall staff and will offer on-call opportunities for those not given summer jobs.

The university has struggled to attract and retain enough service staff in recent years, and has had to turn to inexperienced temporary workers to fill scores of vacant dining hall positions. In November, more than 120 dining hall jobs out of 300 were vacant in the Twin Cities alone.

The shortage of workers across the university bolstered dining hall workers’ faith that they would be needed somewhere on campus in the summer.

State lawmakers are weighing a bill (HF20/SF32) that would extend unemployment benefits to tens of thousands of hourly school and higher education workers, including dining hall staff, bus drivers and paraprofessionals.

In the meantime, a round of layoffs in the spring could hinder the university’s ability to retain its newest workers, since summer jobs are awarded based on seniority.

Newly hired employees also say they were promised year-round employment when they accepted jobs at the university.

Maggie Goers, who started as a cook at Pioneer Hall in September, said the human resources department assured her there were “plenty of jobs” on campus in the summer.

“I never worried about it,” Goers said.

Now Goers is worried if she’ll be able to afford her medication for lupus. And she’s worried she won’t be able to keep up with her own studies at St. Paul College without stable work hours.

Workers who are laid off will still have access to their health insurance through the university, as long as they continue paying their portion of the premiums. Goers earns $22.75 an hour and her insurance premiums are about $100 a month. She says her health care expenses, including prescriptions, are high even with insurance.

“It’s not just my home and paying my rent. It’s also my health,” Goers said.

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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.