Charles Gooch, a food service employee on Duke University's East campus, pushes a cart in the East Union building in late October 2020. Gooch and his colleagues worry about their exposure to COVID-19 at work. Jake Axelbank / Carolina Public Press.

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At some North Carolina colleges and universities, students returned to in-person classes this fall after short stints in online learning, and their shift back to campuses created a range of needs — including food. 

As food service workers returned to cafeterias, they also returned to risk. Labor and safety issues followed dining staff into the cafeterias.

“We’re risking our lives to come out here and serve the students,” said Shirly Suitt, a Duke University food services employee for more than 35 years.

Nationally, many college food service workers lost their jobs as campuses shuttered over COVID-19 concerns, said Brooks Bitterman, a researcher with Unite Here, a national union representing workers in various industries, including food services. 

For those who remain employed, the reopening of college cafeterias created a dilemma with choices that result in a loss no matter what you chose, he said. 

Charles Gooch, food service worker and former president and current steward for Duke University’s East Campus and Center Campus for Local 77, isn’t sure if he and his colleagues have the right to refuse to work now and return to the job later — a practice Unite Here advocates for in other places. 

He thinks his co-workers would probably have to use their sick time if they didn’t feel comfortable returning.

“They can’t afford to go out — put it that way,” Gooch said. 

Gooch and his colleagues received COVID-19 safety training, masks, gloves and their regular uniforms, he said. Every morning when they arrive, they answer questionnaires about symptoms. If they contract COVID-19, they quarantine for 14 days with pay, he said.

But there’s a recognition that while they are going to work, other Duke staff members can work from home, avoiding the heightened risk of infection from shared space with co-workers and students, Gooch said.  

Because of this risk, many East Campus workers want hazard pay. They’re “essential workers” for a reason: Duke needs them, he said. 

About 70 of Duke’s 400 food service workers are unionized and employed by the university.

Duke’s East Campus food staff members are unionized and paid $15 an hour. West Campus workers are contracted and temporary employees, not directly employed by Duke. Full-time contract workers also get the $15 minimum wage at Duke, and the university has pushed employers of other contract workers to pay that rate as well, according to Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle.

Food service workers on Duke’s East Campus say they are frustrated at a lack of communication from the university regarding their status after the early end to the semester after Thanksgiving.  Until recently, they weren’t sure if they would be paid for the length of a normal semester. 

As of early November, though, food service workers on East Campus are set to be working in December and January when students are not on campus, Gooch said. He credits Barbara Stokes, director of Residential Dining Services at Duke, for finding ways to prevent food service workers from losing income through things like continued training. 

Gooch is not sure about the status of pay for contracted Duke dining service workers, who represent the larger share of food service workers on the campus.

Facing higher risks

For employees who continue to work, the physical spaces in a cafeteria setting can create additional risks for contracting the coronavirus. Duke employees expressed concern about a testing site in the same building as the cafeteria, East Union. 

“We didn’t know anything about it until it was actually there,” Suitt said.

Suitt and Gooch worry about their proximity to a testing site and the possible dangers of passing through the door next to an infected student. 

Within the cafeteria, social distancing is a challenge, said Tamika Robinson, who also works in food services on Duke’s East Campus.

Being in a cafeteria puts workers in the same space as students, and some Duke food service workers questioned students’ behavior.

“You have to constantly tell them to separate,” Robinson said of the students. It can be difficult to maintain 6 feet of space when walking across the cafeteria floor to the dish room or to a different station.

In late October, the university eliminated dine-in options to prevent coronavirus spread.

Beyond the exposure risks, food service employees may fall into higher-risk demographic categories for COVID-19 infection. Many food service workers are over 40 years old and more at risk for negative effects from the coronavirus, Bitterman says.

Many East Campus food service workers are Black and other people of color, Gooch says, and therefore more likely to suffer negative consequences from contracting COVID-19. Going back to work puts one at a higher risk of catching the disease, so the safer option would be to not return, Bitterman said. If you don’t have a deep savings account, though, you are likely eager to get back to work in order to survive. 

Compounding challenges

The university made some changes to protect workers, but the measures had unintended negative consequences. Plexiglass shields around food stations trap hot air in and block cooler air from entering, making it hot if you’re working at a grill or pizza oven, Robinson said. 

Management has been told, but so far, installed fans and other fixes haven’t really solved the problem, she said.

“We’ve had people pass out,” Robinson said.

When his coworkers feel too hot, Gooch encourages them to take breaks, he said.

Expressing safety concerns to management or advocating for hazard pay is challenging, Gooch said. Some workers are scared of retaliation if they speak up.

Legal issues

Technically, it’s illegal for an employer to fire an employee for bringing attention to safety problems, said Gary Shipman, an attorney based in Wilmington. At the same time, though, North Carolina is an at-will state, meaning that employers can fire someone for any reason that isn’t illegal. 

Shipman represents University of North Carolina faculty and staff suing the UNC system over unsafe working conditions in a case that was filed in August seeking class-action certification.

Shipman’s been monitoring and responding to faculty’s and staff’s specific concerns and passing them on to UNC lawyers. So far, the school has been responsive, he said. UNC lawyers have been in accord with whistleblower protections and have reminded some supervisors in the system that they can’t retaliate against workers.

Even so, Shipman, like Gooch, said he’s encountered food service workers who fear retaliation if they were to speak out. They tell him, “They can find a reason to fire me if they want to fire me.” So, Shipman has worked anonymously with some college food service workers. 

If a food service worker did get fired after complaining about safety conditions, for example, there’s no guarantee the courts could offer help, Shipman said. And if a fired worker did have a strong legal case, Shipman knows it wouldn’t be resolved quickly. For many workers, complaining or advocating loudly is too big a risk. 

Part of the lawsuit is making sure that employers are given the necessary personal protective equipment. The lawsuit has also resulted in those who are able to work from home being allowed to do so even if they don’t have underlying conditions, he said. 

That’s not an option for service workers. Like Gooch, Shipman has seen the issue of hazard pay raised as a result.

Food service workers in the UNC system were previously given hazard pay at time and a half, according to Shipman. This fall, that stopped. Although he’s raised the issue, there’s no legal precedent to mandate that essential workers be given hazard pay, Shipman said. 

“You won’t be heard if you don’t stomp your feet,” he’s told workers. “You will get what you need if you make it clear to decision-makers that you won’t tolerate not having it.”

He’s been telling workers they’ll need to pursue advocacy to get it, and some are. Members of union UE Local 150 have been doing a Safe Jobs Save Lives campaign, calling for more masks, gloves, face shields and gowns for housekeepers at UNC Chapel Hill, for example.

Gooch said the same thing: It would take a larger movement to usher in large changes. Since the pandemic, Duke Workers United formed as a diverse group of Duke faculty, graduate and undergraduate students and workers. Gooch is a member himself. They’re vocal about the issues, but it’s a small group, Gooch said. 

“By being service workers, we’re just a nobody, trying to tell everybody,” he explained, quoting a gospel song as he talked about sometimes feeling a lack of respect from the greater Duke community.

“We love our jobs. We just wanted people to be concerned about our concerns.”

Duke media representatives did not respond for comment by press time.

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Natalie Alms

Natalie Alms is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer. She’s a native of Catawba and a graduate of Wake Forest University. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her or other Carolina Public Press writers.

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