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From free to fee for student workers: Controversy surges over shift meals



University of Oregon student Alex Niemeyer works eight hours a week on campus, serving food to fellow students in the EMU student union. But he doesn’t receive a free meal at the UO for his work. Instead, Niemeyer pays $3 in order to receive 5 points, roughly the price for a meal in UO’s dining hall currency.

“People say to me, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just $3,’” Niedermeyer said, “But it adds up.”

A Pathway Oregon student, Niemeyer receives full tuition from UO, but he relies on his work to afford rent and living expenses.

“This job right now [as a dining hall worker] is basically for making sure that my bank account gets drained just a little bit less,” he said.

Niemeyer is a student worker affected by UO’s recent decision to stop giving free meals to its student dining hall employees. Since university administrators announced students would have to pay for shift meals beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, campus unions and community activists have opposed the plan.

Although the Emerald interviewed multiple student workers for this story, some were unwilling to speak openly out of fear of losing their jobs.

Last spring, University Housing administrators announced plans that would affect student workers’ compensation. The plan required dining hall workers to pay $1 for five points to spend on any dining hall meal. Administration raised the price to $3 for five points in winter term, 2017.

(Dana Sparks/Emerald)

Taking away worker shift meals would help keep dorm fees from increasing, according to administrators. In a 2016 interview, Tom Driscoll, director of food services, said shift meals were paid for by students living in the dorms, and he felt that it would be fairer for student workers to pay for their own shift meals.

Michael Griffel, director of housing, held three meetings in May 2016 with dining hall workers to hear their views on the change. Student and classified staff working at the dining halls showed up to protest the proposal, giving testimonials on what they perceived as a pay cut.

The UO Service Employees International Union Local 503  — the campus union for the university’s classified staff — projects that full-time employees’ cumulated salaries would decrease $700,000 annually. The union also delivered a petition to their management, which, the group claims, more than 300 students and non-students signed. The SEIU said it considers shift meals to be a condition of the employment of classified dining hall staff and is part of their compensation package. They argued that the university would have to bargain on any changes to compensation.

The SEIU saw its efforts as a victory. In June, administration sent an email to SEIU leaders informing them that they will not implement paid shift meals to non-student dining staff until union bargaining in 2017.

However, student dining hall workers, who are not represented by the union, got a different email over the summer: their management announced that student workers’ free shift meals would be taken away.

David Pinsonneault, an organizer for the SEIU, was disappointed by the decision.

“All the union workers were [at the spring meetings] to speak up for student workers, it was almost like that issue was more important, to protect student workers,” he said.

When the price of shift meals was increased to $3 in January 2017, university chef Elizabeth Kuretich announced in an email that, based on feedback from dining hall workers, University Housing would not require student workers to spend $3 for 5 points. Instead, the department allows dining hall workers to choose how many points they want to spend on their shift meals, but each point would cost 60 cents.

“We are proud to be able to continue to offer a significant meal discount to our employees and feel it is important that employee’s food cost is not being subsidized by students living on campus,” she said.

The UO Student Labor Action Project, a student labor activist group, has held protests against the policy. In January, 2017, 15 SLAP students gathered in Hamilton Hall alongside SEIU members. Student dining workers, continuing to serve food, weaved through the protesters and their signs. “Admin. Screws Student Workers. Not very nice,” one sign read. “[Housing Director Michael] Griffel is Scrooge” read another.

The student group held call-ins on Feb. 3 to the director of UO housing, bombarding Griffel’s voicemail. “Cutting costs on the backs of your lowest-paid workers is unacceptable and shameful,” their script read. “I urge you to reinstate free shift meals for all dining staff.” A local activist group, Solidarity Network, joined in on the effort.

“We find it very disturbing that the university is refusing to meet that industry standard and we view it as an exploitation of student workers,” said Lonnie Douglas, chair of the group, “especially since most of those workers are probably from working-class or middle-class families. The shift meals they get will help supplement what they have to pay to attend college.”

“This job right now [as a dining hall worker] is basically for making sure that my bank account gets drained just a little bit less.” – UO student Alex Niemeyer

At the EMU, shift meal policy differs from university-run cafeterias. Student employees work at the student union’s five restaurants — all receive a free shift meal. Joe’s Burgers gives employees a free meal after six hours, Subway and Falling Sky employees receive free shift meals after four hours of work and Panda Express gives a meal after three. Chipotle at the EMU allows its employees to eat a meal valued up to $15 at any time during the shift.

On Feb. 9, SLAP students set up a tent outside Hamilton Hall, serving free pizza to dining workers who stopped by in uniform before, after and between shifts. The student activists encouraged workers to sign a petition calling for the administration to reinstate free shift meals.

SLAP’s pizza drive ended when university catering, managed by University Housing, complained that the students did not have a permit to set up a tent or to serve food. According to Kelly McIver, UO police department communications director, requiring students to have a permit to serve free food is a matter of safety.

“The catering and food service policy makes sure that food served to the general public on campus will be prepared and handled using the appropriate health and safety laws and regulation, either by University Catering, or by an approved alternate vendor with a proper waiver,” he said.

Rio Lehman, co-director of SLAP, said he is worried university administration will continue to raise the price of shift meals.

“As of now, they haven’t said that they plan on raising it, but they haven’t given assurances,” Lehman said. “Unfortunately, because there is not a union for student workers, we are currently at their mercy.”


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Andrew Field

Andrew Field

Former Japan Times intern. Daily Emerald reporter and FishDuck editor. Tokyo-Singapore-Houston-Eugene, but Oregonian forever. West Ham United and Portland Timbers fan.

If you got a tip for me on an issue you feel I should be covering, don't hesitate to leave me an email ([email protected]).