In the weeks since Brown returned to more traditional operations for fall 2021, a news story, op-ed and editorial on The Herald’s pages have raised questions about and shared perspectives on dining operations at Brown. Some of these are rooted in fact.
For example, like nearly all food service providers nationally, Brown has faced challenges returning to pre-pandemic staffing levels, given the major impact of COVID-19 on the employment market. And unpredictability in the supply chain has delayed equipment arrivals and at times forced temporary menu and service adjustments — such as the use of disposable plates and cutlery in the Sharpe Refectory and Verney-Woolley — to alleviate pressure points in operations. But we are committed to stop using disposable service items as soon as possible, hopefully by next week. Another important change coming next week is that, based on student feedback, we will resume the ability to use Flex Points at the Blue Room as of Monday, Oct. 25.
At the same time, there is significant misinformation circulating about Dining Services, especially in regard to our care and respect for Brown Dining Services employees. I write to clarify and correct points and make clear our deep appreciation for the hard work, dedication and flexibility of all dining staff, as well as to offer a few updates on dining at Brown.
When background checks wrap up this week on a small number of new hires, we will be at 93% filled staffing rate for bargaining unit positions. And we continue to work aggressively to fill remaining positions by recruiting at hiring fairs, placing ads, conducting one-on-one outreach and expediting hiring. We are also actively recruiting more student workers and welcome applications from members of Brown’s student body.
Each of these efforts comes at a time when many food service providers struggle to keep their doors open, given the challenges of recruiting staff right now. In no way do we diminish the impact of a 7% vacancy rate on current employees, but it’s important to clarify that we’re not operating at some small fraction of typical staffing levels. As we work to return to full staffing, we’re making assignments across our professional, student and temporary staff in ways that balance reasonable employee expectations with the dining needs of campus. Overtime work is always optional and staff are paid either one-and-a-half or double (depending on total hours worked) their regular hourly wage.
It’s also important to make clear that Brown is a leader in the local food service industry in regard to hourly wages, regular increases, employee benefits and opportunities for advancement — all topics that we continue to discuss as we work in good faith with union representatives toward a renewed bargaining agreement this fall. Importantly, we were able to avoid layoffs of any regular dining staff during the pandemic, despite reduced dining operations on campus and the significant negative financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’ve heard claims that the voices of dining staff are not being fully considered. We disagree wholeheartedly. Our employees are valued and important members of the dining family whose voices, ideas and concerns are critical to our success. We hold daily meetings between staff and shift supervisors, as well as regular meetings with the director of labor relations for dining and union leaders. And we pride ourselves on our open-door policy, through which any employee is encouraged to interact with dining’s senior team. We also include a union member on every search committee for any open management position. Through these policies — and many others — we incorporate the perspectives of all employees in Dining decisions.
We are also committed to providing staff the tools and resources required for success. We recently purchased $300,000 in new equipment and added a new truck to our fleet of vehicles. As is the case nationally, we have seen longer lead times for some orders given supply chain challenges; at this point, the vast majority of equipment has arrived. Of course, installation cannot always happen on the day of arrival, as most equipment requires a specialized technician, another service in high demand. To address this in the long term, we recently created a position within Dining Services whose sole focus will be facilities and equipment. In addition, Verney-Woolley’s dining facilities will undergo a major renovation next summer. The project will enlarge and enhance the production area, adding cooler and freezer space and increasing seating capacity and student-facing stations.
Across everything we do, safety and hygiene are our top priorities. All dining supervisors and culinary managers are licensed by the state as food safety managers, and all lead and first cooks are certified in food safety. We work with the Rhode Island Department of Health on both scheduled and unscheduled inspections, contract with a vendor who specializes in dining safety and are proud of our reputation for providing healthy and delicious food served safely.
We are committed to providing made-from-scratch recipes and emphasizing sustainable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, in many cases sourced from local vendors. We offer a variety of options across our dining units and are always open to student feedback.
We care deeply about our dining staff. We are working aggressively to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels, add equipment and resources to our operations and ensure healthy, fresh food options for all members of the Brown community. To advance that work even further, Dining Services will soon begin its scheduled five-year strategic planning process to evaluate, plan and best position dining operations and facilities to align with needs across campus. There will be ample student representation on the committee leading the process and opportunities for all students to offer input via polls, surveys and other mechanisms.
We look forward to continuing to work together with students, dining staff and union representatives to build an even better dining program to serve every member of the Brown community.
Vice President of Dining Services George Barboza can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this op-ed to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.