During lunch hours in Peirce Dining Hall, 59-year-old Diane Newton decorates flatbread pizzas and loads them into the ovens. She has been working at Kenyon for 38 years, and she and the other 75 members of the AVI staff are currently responsible for feeding more than 1,700 students per day.
“I’m an old fart,” Newton said, slicing a pizza for a line of waiting students. “It’s time for me to go!”
But for Newton and other AVI staff members, days are only getting longer. When students arrive on campus each fall, AVI struggles to hire the employees it needs to keep up with increasing numbers. Now, with the largest first-year class Kenyon has ever admitted, the lines are stretching longer during meals, and the staff members behind the counters are beginning to feel overwhelmed.
“We are understaffed; we have been understaffed for the last four years,” an AVI employee, who spoke anonymously out of concern for her job security, said. “I’ve been here for [more than 20] years, and I’ve never seen a problem like this.”
The issue lies not only in hiring new employees, but also in retaining them.
“AVI has a bad reputation, and it’s something that’s been an ongoing thing,” the staff member said. “When they get people here, they don’t give them enough training and don’t encourage them to stay. New people are forced to work here six days [a week] after they’ve been here for two weeks.”
AVI Executive Sous Chef Meagan Stewart said making staff members work six days is not the fault of AVI, but rather of their union contract, which requires AVI employees to work five days per week. Employees with the least seniority may be forced to work an extra day per week if AVI needs someone to fill a spot, however; because of AVI’s inability to hire new employees, this is beginning to happen more often.
“Obviously, if there’s a cook on Sunday that we’re missing, we don’t want to go without him because Sunday’s our busiest day,” Stewart said. “That’s not an AVI thing. That’s in their union contract. So, unfortunately, we have to abide by that contract.”
This can be daunting for new employees in the dining hall, especially after seeing the number of students they have to feed after their first day on the job.
“After your first meal serving 1,700 students, it’s like, ‘Holy crap, this is a lot of people,’” Stewart said. “So this is not necessarily a job for everyone.”
Local union representative for the AVI staff and dining hall worker Helen Gains said management is forced to fill spots almost every day because of missing workers. Gains believes the six-day clause in the union contract is partly why AVI has trouble keeping the dining hall staffed.
“Some people in the past … have quit because they were forced to work six days repeatedly week after week,” Gains said. “We’ve lost some good workers.”
Kim Novak, resident director of Peirce Hall, said the staff members’ union contract also permits them to take 16 vacation days throughout the year. With a total of 210 serving days, this means AVI staff members are currently allowed to miss almost eight percent of those days. This may explain why some dining hall employees feel overworked.
“Some of them don’t take them all, but some of them do,” said Novak, who added that the missed days means AVI has to fill more spots.
Novak agreed the dining hall is understaffed. In the past month, AVI hired two new “platers” to help accommodate the staff members and are currently looking to hire four more. These platers will load the food onto plates and set them out for students so chefs may focus primarily on cooking and baking. According to Novak, this is the first time in four years AVI has been able to add staffing. Novak said she isn’t sure whether or not these six new positions will be enough, but hopes they will take some pressure off the staff members.
“Sometimes it hits you in the face like ‘Boom, oh my gosh, we have hit our limit,’” Novak said. “So now we’re working to fix that, because I want the employees to be just as happy as I am, and I’m not happy if the employees aren’t happy.”
Students are beginning to take notice of the growing lines in Peirce. Alexander Miller ’19 said that he has had to wait up to 25 minutes for his food during lunch hours, and said he thinks the service in the dining hall could be better.
“I think [the service] here is as good as it can be for how they are staffed, but I think, overall, it’s subpar,” Miller said.
Sam Meyerson ’17, however, said the wait for food hasn’t changed much over the past few years.
“It isn’t noticeably different from any other year,” Meyerson said. “The freshmen class is bigger. That might be why the lines are longer.”
Another AVI staff member, who also spoke anonymously, agreed the dining hall is understaffed, and asked students to show sympathy before complaining about the time it takes to get their food.
“The College is taking in all these extra people, and the kids complain about the lines, then the College gets on us to hurry up,” the staff member said. “And that’s not right.”