Free shift meals cut to meet rising food costs and lower on-campus housing fees, administrator says

A UO administrator says he was transparent when he discontinued free shift meals for student dining hall workers to acommodate rising food costs and lower dorm fees. On July 29, 2016, University of Oregon Director of Housing Michael Griffel announced on a post to the UO Housing page that, although his …

A UO administrator says he was transparent when he discontinued free shift meals for student dining hall workers to acommodate rising food costs and lower dorm fees.

On July 29, 2016, University of Oregon Director of Housing Michael Griffel announced on a post to the UO Housing page that, although his department would not take away non-student worker meals until it bargains with the Service Employees International Union, the classified worker’s union, student dining workers were to pay for their shift meals. Beginning September 2016,  meals cost $1 for five meal points (the cost of a meal in dining hall currency) and then, in December, UO Housing increased the cost of shift meals to $3 for the same number of points.

“It’s on the [UO Housing website] and it’s all laid out very clearly. It’s all very public,” said Griffel. “We’ve tried to be really transparent and open about everything, and I think that we’ve communicated very clearly.”

Video produced by Samuel Sigman.

Griffel’s comment, during an interview, comes as student activist group, the Student Labor Action Project, and SEIU, the classified worker’s union, have protested his decision to charge student dining hall workers for meals. Members of both parties have accused Griffel of not clearly communicating with workers. 

Griffel said the claims are false — he publicized his plans by posting his emails to dining workers on the UO Housing website. His posts announced UO Housing’s proposal to charge dining workers for their shift meals, and invited them to meetings to discuss the proposed changes. But student and non-student dining workers are upset that Griffel did not let them know he was going to take away student dining worker shift meals until announcing his decision in a website post over the summer.

“They left folks under the impression that they were leaving [free] student meals in place and they didn’t clarify that it wouldn’t apply to students until over the summer,” said Rio Lehman, a SLAP director. “I think that they intentionally clarified their position over the summer because that is a good time for them to make unpopular changes. Because that’s when students aren’t around to make a fuss about it.”

In April 2016, Griffel posted an email, which included his plans to charge students $1 for five points in shift meals until Dec. 31, before increasing it to $3. The housing director’s email read that the change would be “fiscally responsible,” as food growers and distributors are raising prices. The United States Department of Agriculture recorded that 2016 food-at-home costs (the prices of products sold in grocery stores and supermarkets) declined 1.3 percent, compared to the previous year. However, it was the first annual decrease of food costs in the US since 1967.

Griffel said, during the interview, that UO relies on students living in the dorms to cover food costs. UO Housing projected that, by June 2017, the total revenue it will earn from room and board fees will be $53,312,730. However, the same estimates show that it would spend $53,430,023 on food, staff and utilities, leaving the department with a $117,293 deficit.

Griffel felt that charging student workers for their own student meals — instead of having everyone living in the dorms contribute — but giving them 70 percent off on dining hall food, would help the university meet costs.

“If you are going from having a 100 percent discount and you are not contributing everything, and it’s paid for completely by room and board fees, then that feels like a total benefit.” Griffel said. “At the same time, what was happening was that living on campus and having a room and board plan was expensive and that some people couldn’t live on campus as a result of how much it cost.”

Griffel said that taking free meals away from student dining workers has provided cheaper dorm options. Although freshmen will be required to live on campus starting from the 2017-18 year, Griffel said 2,000 students will be able to for under $10,000 — $1,400 less than past years. A student would need to choose the lowest priced dorms and the “Carson limited” meal plan, which lets a student have unlimited access to a all-you-can-eat buffet (at Carson Hall) plus $50 of campus cash.

In May 2016, Griffel published another email on the UO Housing website, inviting students and classified dining workers to three town hall meetings. During the meetings, SEIU members, student and non-student dining workers opposed the proposal.

SEIU presented research at one meeting that full-time employees’ cumulated salaries would decrease $700,000 annually. The SEIU also mentioned that it views shift meals as part of compensation, and changes must be bargained with the union. In the final meeting on May 13, the union delivered a petition opposing the plan that more than 300 students and non-students signed.

According to David Pinsonneault, an organizer with the SEIU, UO Housing management emailed the union days after the meeting, letting them know that they would hold off on taking away non-student worker shift meals until conducting a bargaining session with them.

Pinsonneault assumed that this meant that Griffel would leave free shift meals for dining hall employees.

“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 in a phone interview with the Emerald on Feb. 20. Pinsonneault said that he thanked the management and Griffel for, what he thought, was them keeping student dining worker meals free.

“But management sent us a message back and said, ‘no decisions have been made for student workers,’ and then we didn’t hear anything from them until they actually implemented it on student workers,” Pinsonneault said.

Read our cover story on the controversy over shift meal pricing here.

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