Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Blue Wall is desperate for new hires

Blue Wall workers concerned about staff shortages, demanding workloads, and a lack of competitive wages
Graham Noble/Daily Collegian (2022)

At Blue Wall, over 10,000 students are served on any given day, and 23 languages are spoken within its domain. A piano sits just outside the commons, filling it with life, spirit and song. Yet, Blue Wall is understaffed by 32 people, according to General Manager Lynn Pelkey, and since the start of the semester has been consistently overwhelmed.

The dining halls, made up predominantly of employees of color, are understaffed and desperate for more workers. However, long hectic hours and non-competitive wages don’t incentivize new hires. This semester, the UPub hasn’t been open and Pete’s Coffee in the ILC is on reduced hours.

Harvinder Kaur or “Harvey,” as her colleagues refer to her, started working for the University of Massachusetts dining 17 years ago. Kaur is an Indian immigrant and admits that she still struggles regularly with her English. After working diligently for the University since September 2004, she became a supervisor.

Catch Kaur in the full swing of a lunch rush at Blue Wall and she is no-nonsense. She spends the afternoon ushering students into the correct line and directing the sounds and rhythms of the dining hall like a concertmaster would an orchestra. After work hours however, Kaur is amiable, extroverted and humorous, and admits that she likes being around people.

Despite their unwavering commitment to the dining hall, and the students they feed, Harvey and other UMass dining hall workers make far less than those in the same positions at other local colleges.

“Some people spend their whole life here,” Kaur said, “some people quit and can’t handle it.”

After 17 years of employment in the same dining hall, Kaur still makes $24 an hour as a supervisor. Other workers, who remain on their feet for upwards of 10 to 12 hours a day, make far less.

“Money isn’t everything to me, I just want to be happy,” Kaur said.

Garrett Distefano, director of UMass dining services, said, “We have some of the most dedicated people you are ever going to meet, who work tirelessly to feed students day in and day out.”

According to Distefano, 60 percent of the over 1,000 employees that work in dining services are people of color.

Despite the praise they receive, Blue Wall workers have voiced their concerns about serious staff shortages and demanding workloads. Workers have expressed disapproval for the lack of competitive wages compared to other colleges in the area.

Sherry Stone, a worker at Tamales, said that there are times when they scoop over 1,000 meals a day. “If they paid more, then more people would stay,” Stone said. “[$20 an hour], that’s what they pay at Smith College.”

Dining room coordinator jobs at Smith college listed on Indeed start at $19.85. UMass currently starts wages for their dining hall employees at $16 an hour.

“Don’t stress, the stress doesn’t help,” Kaur tells her workers. “This job makes you strong. Moving all day.” Even with Kaur’s confidence and encouragement, the dining hall still struggles to retain staff throughout the academic year.

“It’s been tough,” Pelkey said. “It’s hard to keep people to stay, the pressure is just too much. I can’t even offer them overtime if they stay, they just want to go home.” Pelkey said staff are overwhelmed. Meanwhile, students complain about long lines and stations that always seemed to be closed.

The Blue Wall dining hall alone serves upwards of 10,000 meals a day, according to Pelkey.

Speaking to her employees, “I try to tell them to take it one customer at a time and try not to lose your mind,” Pelkey said.

Pelkey gushed with pride when talking about her team. “I feel like I’ve been to battle with them,” she said. “They are so loyal and they are so proud to be working at UMass. I wish the students knew just how much they actually cared about them.”

Regarding increasing wages, Pelkey said she would love to see her employees get a well-deserved raise, but it was up to the University.

Meal prices have gone up this semester with an increase in food prices and the value of a Your Campus Meal Plan swipe to $12. Yet, the employees working there still have not seen an increase in hourly wage.

Grace Collins, a senior behavioral science major, said that she would support an increase in worker wages. “I think they are deserving,” she said.

Regarding increasing pay in order to increase the number of job applicants, Distefano said, “Possibly. We have to be very mindful of what wages are and how we are able to bring people in.”

“Higher wages is not the only driving factor that’s influencing student [decisions around applying]. As a matter of fact, it’s getting them assimilated. The thing that really drives student behavior to work for us is it’s a really fun place to work,” said Distefano.

When asked if the demanding workload and lack of staff was deterring new applicants, Distefano said, “It’s a catch-22. We can’t arbitrarily pay somebody an extra three, four, five dollars, whatever it might be because of whatever trends are happening.”

When asked about increasing wages for non-student employees, Distefano said, “These contracts are set well in advance, these particular discussions would have to happen, and it’s not even really in our hands on how that would happen.”

According to Jim Durkin, legislator director of AFSCME Local 1776 representing UMass workers, the current contract for UMass workers expires at the end of June 2023. This means negotiations for new worker wages will begin at the start of the new year.

“Paying decent wages is a critical part of obtaining and retaining workers,” said Durkin.

“We’re losing our best workers,” said Lidianne Miranda, an assistant manager at Blue Wall. “If they don’t make any changes, you can expect the lines to get longer.”

Meanwhile, UMass dining has resorted to Snapchef, an agency that provides temporary food workers and pays $17.50 an hour. The temp workers will, “provide a fix for a day or two,” Distefano said.

Graham Noble can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @GrahamNoble_.

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  • L

    LidianneOct 28, 2022 at 8:39 am

    That’s my guy,thank you,hope for better days in here??.Liddy

    • G

      Graham NobleNov 3, 2022 at 9:30 pm

      Thank you, Lidianne! I appreciate your help and all the work that you do.

  • N

    Nick McBrideOct 27, 2022 at 7:00 pm

    Fine piece of work Graham. Objective journalism that champion’s people who work for a living!
    Prof. McBride

    • G

      Graham NobleNov 3, 2022 at 9:29 pm

      Thank you so much Professor!