Working at a College During COVID Has Sucked
'It’s almost as if they’re incentivizing people to come to work sick.'
Two years into the pandemic, Americans have turned decisively against jobs that have sucked for a long time. A record 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in December, with workers in hospitality, leisure, and retail leading the way out the door.
In U.S. colleges and universities, the workers who keep every part of the higher education system running have dealt with their own sets of frustrations, ones which some told Discourse Blog are longstanding but have intensified during COVID.
At Kutztown University in eastern Pennsylvania, dining workers employed by foodservice contracting giant Aramark launched a public effort last fall to form a union affiliated with the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Workers, an SEIU affiliate. Pro-union dining services workers told Discourse Blog they’re short-staffed, paid too little, and not given enough opportunities to use the paid time off they’ve accrued.
But they’ve also accused management of not informing workers about their COVID sick leave policy, pushing workers to come in when they had possible COVID symptoms, and disrespecting the workers who have kept students fed through one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.
“The staff members are getting entirely frustrated with a lot of the things that's been going on with upper management,” Sean Jones, who’s been a sous chef at Kutztown for three years and is also a leader in the movement to organize Aramark workers there, told Discourse Blog. "They're feeling like they're being ignored, feel like they're being looked at like a number and not a person.”
The problems with staffing reflect the broader reality of service work in the U.S. right now. After decades of low pay, minimal flexibility, and a lack of benefits, hospitality workers have fled the service industry during the Great Resignation. That’s extended to colleges and universities; last fall, even before Omicron hit the U.S., Michigan State University went so far as to ask faculty and staff to volunteer at the dining halls to keep them operating.
As of November, when pro-union dining workers filed an unfair labor practice charge against Aramark, there were 92 employees there, according to National Labor Relations Board records. Terilynn Isamoyer, a dining services worker who began working at Kutztown in 2020 after the pandemic started, guessed that Kutztown’s staffing levels are less than half of what they should be. In the dining hall where she normally works, just 13 workers are feeding anywhere from 1,200 to 1,800 students per day.
“You know, with the whole Great Resignation thing, there were a lot of people who decided, ‘Hey, it was a crappy job anyway, I’m moving on,’” Isamoyer, a leader in the union drive, told Discourse Blog. She said that Aramark hired around 60 new workers to start this school year, and “almost all of them quit.”
“Even when they start, they don’t stay,” she added. (Neither Aramark nor Kutztown University responded to multiple requests to address the workers' claims prior to the publication of this story.)
Isamoyer cited people who have spent years or even decades working in dining services at Kutztown and still aren’t making livable wages, as well as “stop and start” healthcare coverage and inflexible scheduling.
“They’re always expecting unbelievable amounts of flexibility, but when you need some flexibility you’re never given any compassion,” Isamoyer said. “When you have a family member who gets ill, they give you a hard time for taking time off.” And even though workers accrue paid time off, Isamoyer said that the company has issued “months and months” of “blackout dates” where workers can’t take time off, and that there are also caps on how much paid time off they can earn.
“You accrue to a certain level where you can't accrue anymore, so it’s kind of like use it or lose it,” she said. “But you never get the time to use it.”
In March 2020, Aramark CEO John Zillmer announced a paid sick leave policy to provide up to three full weeks of paid time off for employees who contracted COVID-19 or were forced to quarantine due to illness. In August 2020, Erica Springs, another Kutztown dining services worker who’d been working at the university for about a year, arrived at work after feeling sick. At the time, the university was doing temperature and symptom checks for its employees.
Springs was surprised by how low her temperature was, and mentioned her symptoms to a supervisor. She said she was told to go and clock in anyway. Workers can enter their symptoms in the university's digital time-clock system; when she did so, she told Discourse Blog, the system returned a message advising her not to clock in. Springs said that when she told her supervisor this, she was told that “[the time-clock] always says that.”
Ultimately, Springs vomited. When she said she needed to go home, she told Discourse Blog, a supervisor told her that there was no one else to cover her station. She went home anyway and was told by a doctor to self-quarantine; that same day, she resigned via email, using the two weeks after her notice to quarantine. (Springs said she never got tested to find out if she had COVID.)
“After that whole situation, with the lack of accountability in the company, after they said ‘We’re going to take this very serious'…clearly they weren’t actually doing that,” she said. “They didn’t care that you were sick. It was just something to say so people feel better.”
Aramark added a "policy update" to its initial COVID response in "summer 2021" saying that the "expanded coronavirus pay program" had been discontinued, and did not respond to questions about when and why the program ended. Jones, the Kutztown sous chef, contracted COVID-19 in July 2021, spending multiple days at work before finally testing positive and being forced to quarantine. (Jones was unvaccinated at the time, he said.)
But he didn’t find out until an August union meeting that the company had offered special coronavirus pay. “We were supposed to get paid for the time we were out, and no one decided to let me know that,” Jones said. “I was a little jacked up.”
Despite the Omicron surge, which has pushed cases in Pennsylvania well beyond any other point in the pandemic and resulted in peak hospitalizations, workers say the company still isn’t doing what it needs to in order to keep workers safe.
The company has begun offering retention bonuses partially based on attendance, Isamoyer said, beginning last semester and again this semester. This bonus, according to Isamoyer, is a monthly "retention incentive bonus" tied to hours worked which includes not being late to work or being written up, and only allowing for one absence from work during a given month. During a corporate presentation in January, Isamoyer said, employees asked if getting COVID and being forced out of work would disqualify workers from receiving the bonus. “They said, hey, an absence is an absence,” Isamoyer said.
“I’m thinking: Omicron is all over the place and people here are starting to get sick more than they ever did, or at least we’re knowing about it more,” she added. “And you’re attaching extra money, a bonus, to our attendance. So it’s almost as if they’re incentivizing people to come to work sick.”
Out of the 14 state universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (one of Pennsylvania’s two publicly-funded university systems), Kutztown dining services workers are currently the only one without a union.
The workers went public with their effort to form a union in October, and their effort has been endorsed by Lt. Gov. and U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman, who rallied with them in November. Workers told Discourse Blog that Aramark has held meetings attempting to bust the union drive, and in November, KU Dining Workers United and the Pennsylvania Joint Board Workers United filed an unfair labor practice charge against Aramark. The groups claim that Kutztown University violated a union supporter’s rights by “interrogating him about his discussions with a coworker and unlawfully telling him he was not allowed to discuss terms and conditions of employment with new coworkers.”
The dining services workers have not yet filed for an election, but Jones said he believes that they’ll eventually be successful in their effort. “I believe we’re going to win,” Jones said.
Though Springs hasn’t been back on campus since she resigned, she believes a union could help not only with COVID but other concerns such as scheduling issues. “It’s not necessarily the greatest place to work,” Springs told Discourse Blog. “I mean, even before COVID, there were issues.”
Isamoyer, for her part, believes the union drive would’ve eventually happened even if the pandemic hadn’t happened. "It may have helped a little bit because of the severe level of short staffing...whether or not it's definitely pandemic related, I doubt it," she said.
"We're having conversations with so many of my coworkers all across campus, a lot of them that have been there like, 20, 30 years,” she added. “They're just like, 'No, a lot of these issues have been long-standing.'”
Though the circumstances are different, workers in other parts of the university ecosystem are dealing with their own set of frustrations. During Princeton University’s holiday break this winter, the Ivy League school delayed a return to campus and took a literal far-reaching step to handle what looked like it would be a slew of COVID-19 infections as students returned to school: banning them from leaving the county.
“Beginning January 8 through mid-February, all undergraduate students who have returned to campus will not be permitted to travel outside of Mercer County or Plainsboro Township for personal reasons, except in extraordinary circumstances,” the school said in a December 27 announcement. (The school later lifted the travel restrictions on Jan. 15 following a decrease in cases, a Princeton spokesman said in an email.)
The move was meant to portray caution at a time when New Jersey was among the hardest hit by Omicron. But before students even returned to campus, the university was dealing with the consequences of the new variant.
On January 4, the university sent an email to faculty, staff, and researchers, saying that In order to “reduce the strain on the asymptomatic testing program,” it was asking all employees who could work remotely to do so before January 31. (Discourse Blog viewed screenshots of the email.)
At the same time, the university said at that point that it “had not identified an increased health risk to staff on campus during this time.” Days later, the university’s COVID dashboard showed that, in the week ending January 7, 324 faculty and staff had tested positive for COVID-19, reflective of the broader post-holiday surge seen around the country.
One worker at the Princeton University Library, who spoke to Discourse Blog on condition of anonymity, developed a sore throat during the holidays and began testing with rapids before going back on campus. The employee said that the university’s Health Services department was no longer doing contact tracing at that point and that they “told me to get in touch with people.”
Princeton spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss disputed this claim in an email to Discourse Blog, saying the university hadn't discontinued contact tracing but was prioritizing it for students and service personnel, or "populations with the highest risk of transmission." Hotchkiss also said that Omicron's increased transmissibility "makes contact tracing somewhat less effective as a mitigation strategy, especially when there are delays in case recognition due in part to the very mild symptoms exhibited by many vaccinated people."
Three days after the worker started feeling symptoms, the university sent an automated “wellness check-in” text starting with the question of when the employee began feeling symptoms. But no matter how the employee arranged the date their symptoms started, the messaging service continued to ask, “What day did you first experience symptoms?” before ceasing to respond.
In an email, Hotchkiss said the university is "aware of this issue and have been working to address it" and gave a phone number for university students and employees to call with COVID questions.
Hotchkiss also touted the university's mitigation measures, including a vaccine and booster requirement, asymptomatic testing, and a mask requirement. "To date, we have found no indications of on-campus spread of COVID-19 in environments where all present are appropriately masked," the spokesperson said.
Princeton and Kutztown are requiring masks as part of a strategy to mitigate the spread of COVID, but that's not the case everywhere. The University of Missouri, the largest in the state, allowed its mask mandate to expire in October. At a meeting of the University of Missouri system's Board of Curators on January 11, the governing body rejected a request from system president Mun Choi to bring back the mask mandate for the whole university, and another request to institute the mandate for classrooms and labs.
“Are we trying to protect the health of all Columbia and [surrounding] Boone County or keep our campus open?” Greg Hoberock, the vice-chairman of the board and a Republican donor to anti-mandate Gov. Mike Parson, said at the January 11 meeting. At that point, Boone County had one of the highest rates of case growth in the state, according to CDC data.
Mike Olson, a third-year PhD student and graduate worker at the University of Missouri who serves as the Missouri Coalition of Graduate Workers (CGW) union's outreach officer, said in an email during the week that classes were returning, he was “apprehensive at best” about going back into the classroom because there was no mandate.
“While I have missed being in the classroom with students, I'm concerned that the university's refusal to reinstate the mask mandate will embolden those who are not treating the virus seriously,” Olson said before returning to class. (Reached after classes had begun, Olson estimated that about 60 percent of students in his large lecture class were masking, and in smaller discussion classes, around four-fifths of students were wearing masks.)
Reached for comment, a spokesperson from the University of Missouri system referred Discourse Blog to the January 11 meeting discussion.
Given the circumstances, it’s not hard to understand why morale is low. The Princeton employee described themself as “on the way out” of their job. “I think everyone’s pretty frustrated,” the worker told Discourse Blog.
“The mood among graduate workers seems to swing between anxiety and resignation,” Olson said of his co-workers. “We know that the university will not do the right thing. We feel abandoned and left to wither on the vine by people who profess to value us and who profit from our labor.”
“But we are at something of a loss as to what to do to make them do the right thing,” he added. “And it can be easier to just accept the state of things instead of rushing to the barricades.”
UPDATE, 1:00 p.m: This story has been updated to clarify Sean Jones' role in the push to unionize Aramark workers and when Princeton lifted the student travel restrictions.