Section: News

Running out of steam

Running out of steam

Susan Payne walked out of her job as a baker in Peirce Dining Hall one day last fall and never came back. She felt so overworked and mistreated by the chefs of AVI Foodsystems, the College’s dining service, that she could not stand one more day making pizza crusts or rolling pastries.

“They would literally go and pick on certain workers,” Payne said. “There was just a constant pick. And I didn’t care for that at all.”

On the morning of the day Payne left, Executive Chef Meagan Stewart asked her to make monkey bread and cupcakes before lunch. When Payne discovered the dough had not been properly thawed out the night before, she realized she wouldn’t be able to finish them in time.

“That’s when she started yelling at me,” Payne said, referring to Stewart. “‘I’ve got your station up over here! Haven’t you ever done this before?’ And she just kept on and on and on. And I thought, ‘What is going on?’”

Payne is not the only AVI employee who has felt mistreated. In interviews with the Collegian, 10 employees, all of whom spoke anonymously out of fear of losing their jobs, described a work environment in which employees are worn out and constantly scolded by the chefs.

Seventy-six employees work for AVI, 20 short of the number Kim Novak, director of the dining hall, would like to have on staff. When AVI does hire new employees, roughly 40 percent quit within the first month, according to Stewart and Novak. Novak attributed the attrition to a variety of causes, including failed drug tests, job stress, trouble with other workers and a lack of ability.

The struggle to retain workers and the resulting shortage of employees have caused some AVI veterans to feel that they are working harder than ever before. 

When workers have not been able to complete the tasks assigned to them, they have been either subjected to scoldings or formally “written up,” part of a disciplinary system that begins with a verbal warning, and is followed by a written warning from the chefs, according to employees. A third warning leads to a three-day suspension, and a fourth warning results in job termination, according to Stewart and Novak.

A cook who has worked in Peirce for six years said AVI’s work environment is driven by the fear of being written up or chastised for not making enough food before meal time, even if the kitchen is understaffed for the day. She said employees feared being directed to the cooler.

“She would take people in her cooler to bitch them out, to give them hell. That was her ‘office,’” the employee said of Stewart. “And the morale was low because all of the workload they were given.”

Other employees claimed they were called “stupid” or “dumb” and embarrassed in front of coworkers by Stewart when they could not make enough food in time. Two workers said they wrote formal grievances to the union because they felt mistreated by Stewart.

Presented with employee claims concerning verbal abuse, Stewart said she “hates” conflict, but sometimes is forced to use strong language to motivate employees. When employees aren’t moving fast enough to get food out in time, she considers it her job to push them to work harder.

“I hate having to be like, ‘Hey, you know you’re not supposed to be doing it this way, it should be this way,’” Stewart said. “But I took that role to be the executive chef, and it’s not personal.”

Stewart acknowledged employees had filed grievances through the Union against her and other chefs, but noted employees may file grievances against anyone, for any work-related reason. Stewart denied calling workers “stupid” or “dumb” with malicious intent, and said if she had used such language, it has been jokingly, which workers sometimes misinterpret.

Stewart said she cares about her workers, despite what she may say during working hours.

“We are family, we do fight,” Stewart said. “But at the end of the day, I will always be there to make sure they’re OK.”

Some employees are reluctant to call AVI their family.

One worker, who has been at Peirce for 10 years, said her managers berate her when she is not doing anything wrong, and that AVI pushes workers to the limit of their abilities.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “But you just go, go, go, go — and there have been times when I’ve almost passed out.”

The cook who has been a cook at AVI for six years said she was written up recently for not making enough food in time, even though two cooks were working in the kitchen that day, rather than the usual five; all the other cooks either were sick or had taken the day off.

After Payne walked out of Peirce last fall, she emailed a letter to President Sean Decatur voicing concerns about the working conditions and treatment of employees under AVI, and requested a meeting with him. When the Collegian asked Decatur about this letter, he said he passed it on to Mark Kohlman, chief business officer, who responds to employee complaints. Kohlman said the College had addressed the issues in the letter mentioned. He would not give any more details.

Stewart said she cared about Payne while she worked for AVI. She said she does not feel maliciously toward her, but that her claims are not substantiated.

“I really liked her, and I really cared about her,” Stewart said. “And it hurts me, what she did. As much as she feels hurt by me.”

When it comes to writing workers up, Stewart said employees are suspended from their jobs only after many warnings and attempts to coach the employee on how to do the job properly.

“When people reach that point, you know there’s been a lot of effort put forth from the managers,” she said.

Stewart also said employees are rarely formally written up for failing to complete an assigned task on time; she said this only happens about twice a month. Stewart said workers get written up often for taking too many days off of work, and that this sometimes happens multiple times in a single week.

The cook who has been at AVI for six years said she has occasionally seen four to five people taken into Stewart’s office to be written up in a single day, though she couldn’t say why.

One worker said she has had a good experience working in Peirce, but admitted she had heard many complaints from other workers.

“AVI is fair,” the worker said.

Rose Kennerly, one of AVI’s four union stewards, also said she has had a good experience with and has not felt mistreated by AVI, but said their trouble maintaining employees has burdened other workers.

One worker, who has been at Peirce for seven years, understands Stewart’s job includes motivating employees, but said this responsibility doesn’t give her an excuse to shout at people running behind schedule.

“Having a job doesn’t mean you treat your people like they don’t matter,” she said.

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