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Sunday, June 16, 2024

UF dining hall workers struggle after sudden layoffs by campus food provider

Employees left jobless and uncertain, relying on unemployment benefits and food stamps amid poor communication

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that statements about Chartwells’ layoff program and decreased campus traffic during summer were made by Florida Fresh Dining. The Alligator originally reported otherwise.

Robin Lalande has fed students in UF’s dining halls for years, but now she’s struggling to feed herself. 

She and several other employees of Chartwells Higher Education, UF’s campus food provider, are relying on unemployment benefits and food stamps after sudden mass layoffs earlier this month. 

The layoffs, which affected 63 associates according to Florida Fresh Dining District Marketing Director Courtland Thomas, came as a shock to those who assumed they’d still have a job during the summer. 

Thomas said nearly 800 associates work during the academic year. Only 297, or about one-third of associates from the Spring semester, are currently working Summer A. That number will change based on summer enrollment fluctuations.

Employees were not aware they would be out of a job until May 3 when they received their layoff letters, which was also their last day of work for the Spring semester. They expected to return for Summer A or B, but the late notice left them scrambling to make up for the income loss. 

It takes two to four weeks after filing an unemployment claim to receive a payment and up to 30 days to process a food assistance application. Without adequate time to prepare for a jobless summer, many workers are facing weeks without a paycheck. 

“I feel like it’s a kick in my face,” Lalande, one of the former Broward Hall supervisors, said. “I don’t have a check. Now I gotta sit back and wonder, how am I really going to get paid? How are you going to eat? It’s not right.”

Lalande said she wasn’t supposed to be laid off at all. She and other employees expected to have a job at Cravings Campus Kitchen but learned May 1 the dining location would be closed for the summer. According to Lalande, even Cravings’ executive chef was in the dark about Chartwells’ layoffs and closures until the last minute. 

“There’s no communication between corporate and their employees,” she said. “It’s a mess.”

The layoff letter, provided by Lalande, cited a lack of work as the reasoning for the layoffs and told employees they would be required to attend a return-to-work orientation at the beginning of August. 

But many employees can’t wait that long. Lalande said more drastic measures will be taken if Chartwells doesn’t listen to their complaints. 

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“We’re not being heard,” she said. “If push comes to shove, if necessary, we will end up doing a protest.”

Thomas, the Florida Fresh Dining District Marketing Director, said layoffs are typical in the summer due to the decrease in campus traffic. He also said UF Business Services tries to notify employees about layoffs as early as April. 

Decisions about who stays and who leaves are made in partnership with UF based on skill set, work performance, preference and the length of time employees have been with the company, according to Thomas.

He also said employees are made aware of the summer layoff program during onboarding. The program allows employees to continue receiving medical benefits and file for unemployment, and it offers “a guaranteed return to their position when classes resume in the Fall,” Thomas said. 

Lalande, who didn’t receive a layoff letter until May 16, said she and others expected there to be some layoffs in the summer but had never heard of a layoff program. 

Susan Paez, a food service worker who’s worked at UF since 2012, was also unaware of a layoff program. She said it’s unclear what employment in the Fall will look like even with a guaranteed return. 

According to Paez, her manager warned her of tighter Fall hours. Now she’s wondering if she should look for another job.

“Everything’s hanging in the balance,” she said. “We don’t know if we’re coming back. We don’t know what we’re doing.” 

But Paez said leaving UF is the last thing she wants to do. To her and many other dining service employees who have invested years into the university and its students, it’s more than just a job.

“I love what I do because of the students,” she said. “If I have to leave that, it’s really hard.” 

With only six weeks left of unemployment benefits, Paez said she’s struggling to make it to July. 

“I also have to survive at my household here, so I may have to make that bad choice of finding another job, and I shouldn’t have to,” she said. 

Paez also expressed her disappointment for the students. Between frequent food shortages and short-staffed dining halls, she said it’s the students who pay the price.

UF, which partnered with Chartwells in 2022 after ending the 13-year contract with the previous food provider, Aramark, is not the only school that has been affected by Chartwells policies and practices.

Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group, has a history of scandals. The company was forced to pay millions of dollars to New York and Washington, D.C. in 2012 and 2015 respectively for school catering quality issues and financial mismanagement. In 2014, a Connecticut high school boycotted its Chartwells lunches. In 2020, NYU students were appalled by subpar quarantine meal deliveries. And in 2021, Chartwells was involved in a UK controversy surrounding free school meals.

Chartwells may already be in hot water at UF. According to Paez, 20 evening shift employees walked out mid-shift at Gator Corner April 20 because they were short-staffed. She said promises to hire more people were made but never honored. After the walkout, operations returned to normal, and employees were told not to speak about it. 

“The employees, especially during the night, they’ve been crying out for help,” Paez said. “It’s all hush-hush.”

She blamed Chartwells’ management for the employees’ silence. Thomas said Chartwells is not aware of a walkout.

Theresa Parsons, a food service worker who has worked on campus for nearly 20 years, said attempts to take grievances to HR have been futile and a petition they drafted in the fall with other employees went nowhere. 

She, Lalande and Paez are now spearheading the fight against Chartwells. They hope they can convince the company to sit down and talk with their employees.

“We’re in limbo,” Parsons said. 

“We need to get the word out,” Robin Lalande said. “They’re really not doing their employees right.” 

Contact Grace McClung at Follow her on X @gracenmcclung.

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Grace McClung

Grace McClung is a third-year journalism major and the graduate & professional school reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, Grace can be found running, going to the beach and writing poetry.

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