Long lines might be the hallmark of the student dining experience at Brown. But these lines are a symptom of a deeper crisis: the shocking conditions facing our dining hall workers. As one of the nation’s wealthiest universities, these conditions are unacceptable. Furthermore, for an institution which ostensibly “is fortunate to have a strong community that believes deeply in caring for one another,” Brown’s failure to address the issues plaguing the workers that feed us is hypocritical and exploitative.
This hypocrisy is nothing new. Brown failed to apply the values they say they uphold to their dining staff when I wrote an op-ed on this same topic over a year ago. Though a recent Herald article, titled ‘We’re in desperate need of help,’ brought this topic back into light, that doesn’t mean the problem went away in the meantime.
I am disappointed that the outrageous working conditions have been largely off our radar until now — just as the lines have become long and we, as students, now find ourselves inconvenienced. A dining worker referred to by the pseudonym John in the recent Herald article said “the only time Brown ever listens to us is when the students get involved.” The University should have addressed these issues months ago. University Hall and Brown Dining Services, are you listening now?
Let me pause here to express how grateful I am to the service workers that Brown employs. Their tireless efforts make morning trips to the Ratty enjoyable, late-night visits to Jo’s memorable and the now-occasional visits to the Blue Room a core part of one’s time at Brown. Their efforts are even more impressive when considering that they are overworked due to avoidable chronic understaffing.
Director of Dining Programs George Barboza explained that Brown’s difficulties in hiring new dining employees reflect national trends in the service industry. While this might be true, it is also true that at the start of the pandemic Brown decided to lay off many of its subcontracted employees. This drastically reduced the size of the staff working in dining halls, and lead to many of the problems we face today — long lines, lack of food options, an overworked and burnt out staff and a frustrated student body.
But this decision also contributed to racial and economic injustice. In April of 2020, after the pandemic forced us off campus, I wrote that “this is not just an issue of how much the University values its workers. Hourly workers on campus are overwhelmingly people of color. A large number of them are members of the Cape Verdean community, which was largely outpriced of the College Hill and Fox Point neighborhoods over the past 60 years. This is an issue of how much the University values racial justice.”
Much has changed over the last 18 months. We all continue to live amongst a global pandemic. But it’s time for Brown University to affirm its reputation as a socially responsible institution and do the right thing.
The University ought to lay out a plan to provide basic resources to our dining hall workers in order to meet their needs, and communicate this plan transparently. This step would build trust between the University and its hourly employees and establish a safe and healthy environment for employees to work in and students to eat and live in.
Raise wages. Ensure legitimately safe conditions. And, finally, treat service workers with dignity and the respect they deserve. The understaffing problems and infrastructure conditions are embarrassing: Workers should not be forced to clean fryers with coat hangers. The University should take steps to ensure that they have the tools that they need. And they should ensure that the grill that leaks gas in the Ratty is not dangerous to workers and students.
The University should immediately begin to take steps to address these problems before contract negotiations begin next month.
Matt Rauschenbach ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.