Dining Services staff fights for full wages and benefits amid COVID-19 pandemic


Courtesy of Daniel Suazo

Daniel Suazo (front center), and most of his fellow dining center workers, are not receiving pay or benefits after their hours were eliminated in March.

Daniel Suazo depends on the money he earns from his job at the Emerson College Dining Center to support his child and pregnant wife. As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, Bon Appetit has eliminated all working hours for many of the dining service employees. 

Suazo said unemployment pay from the government only goes so far and not receiving paid vacation or sick days leaves him with few options to pay bills and other living costs. He said most of his colleagues are in similar positions. 

“We, the employees of Emerson College, feel that the whole situation is taking over our state of mind,” Suazo wrote in a written statement to The Beacon. “It is very hard on us, especially when everyone in our family is depending on us.” 

Dining services workers received notice on March 23 that schedule changes were being made due to the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving only 15 workers with full hours and wages. Since the union’s last effort to reach Emerson, these 15 workers have been reduced to nine. The workers left without hours were told by Bon Appetit that they could not use paid sick or vacation leave during the pandemic. 

Suazo is advocating alongside his co-workers to receive pay and benefits regularly given to them for their work. The dining service employees provide food services for Emerson under company contract with Bon Appetit and are not receiving compensation or benefits as a result of the pandemic. 

Dawn Sajdyk, a district manager for Bon Appetit, could not be reached for comment. On Monday, a spokesperson from the company said they would provide a statement to The Beacon but did not do so before publication.

Vice President and Special Assistant to the President Anne Shaugnessy said the workers are employed by Bon Appetit, whom the college contracts for its dining services.

“In the past, the college supported the dining service union’s request to its employer for increased compensation and benefits,” she said in a statement to The Beacon. “We have continued to actively work with all of our contractors, including dining services, throughout the crisis.” 

Suazo said unemployment compensation provided him with some money, but he and many of his colleagues are also concerned about the virus itself. Without the benefits from their employed status, they have no means to cover potential medical bills, Suazo said. In addition, many of Emerson’s dining services staff workers do not qualify for unemployment classification, Suazo said, because they’ve been working at the college for a short period of time. 

Suazo and a majority of dining services staff members at Emerson showed their support by spreading a petition on April 11 with UNITE HERE Local 26 Union. The petition, which currently has over 2,000 signatures out of the 3,200 goal, urges several local Boston colleges to provide full compensation and benefits to workers for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. The dining services staff hopes the petition will attract attention from the Emerson community, Suazo said, bringing awareness to the impact the school’s dining center closure has had on them. 

“It’s crazy because we live in Boston, where everything is expensive and [the dining hall staff] have bills to pay and sometimes kids to feed,” Suazo said in a phone call interview with The Beacon. 

UNITE HERE Local 26 is a local union that has helped several Boston colleges’ dining staffs, including those at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University, to ensure continual pay to workers who rely on the funds.  

MIT has agreed to provide funding for continued wages and benefits for dining workers, some of whom are contracted through Bon Appetit, until May 22. Tufts also agreed to pay its dining workers through April 30. 

Harvard agreed on March 19 to provide employees who cannot work remotely, including dining staff, with full pay and benefits for 30 days.

Local 26’s Communications Specialist and Emerson alumna Nicki Morris ‘15 said local colleges have the responsibility to provide normal benefits and compensation until commencement, originally scheduled for May 10. 

“We are looking for similar situations in all the other schools—we know that it is not just workers at Harvard, MIT, or Tufts that are struggling,” Morris said in a phone interview with The Beacon. “Unemployment does not cover the usual expenses.”

Morris said without receiving unemployment assistance or the colleges’ cooperation, these workers will not receive steady income, any health benefits, or other assurances.

“We have workers who are struggling to pay rent and bills,” Morris said. “Some individuals who don’t have the health insurance they need, [all] because their healthcare benefits came from work.”

In her statement, Shaughnessy said the college has not been contacted by the union but has reached out to Bon Appetit about the issue. However, Morris said the union has reached out to administrators at the college via a letter writing campaign, yet received no responses back. 

“Ultimately it is Emerson’s money and decision,” Morris said in an email to The Beacon. 

The next step, she said, is to urge students and community members of the college to stand in support and solidarity with the dining services workers. 

“We are working hard for the school,” Suazo said. “We are giving our one hundred percent to the school, so we need to know and see the support back to us.”

Carlos Aramayo, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, said he wishes the college would fully compensate the dining services workers, who have strengthened the school community through the services they provide. 

“Dining hall workers are responsible for working the cafeterias, but they are also providing a home away from home,” Aramayo said in a phone interview. “Given the service and the value these workers have created over many many years for these institutions, these institutions have not yet stepped up to the plate.” 

Aramayo said his main concern is the dining services workers’ dependence on the college’s health care benefits, especially during a public health crisis. 

“The last thing we want is for people to be worried about losing their health care,” Aramayo said. “I really hope that Emerson follows the leadership of MIT, Harvard, and Tufts, and figures out how they can really honor the value and service that these dining hall workers provide day in and day out for the institution.”