Thursday, November 19, 2009

Food Service Workers Struggle To Make Ends Meet As Work Hours and Days Are Cut

by Alejandra Olmedo

Noon. Rush hour. Students walk in and out of the crowded food court, at the Student Center, in search of food to satisfy their hunger in-between classes. Those that can find an unoccupied seat stay to calmly enjoy their meal. Once they devour greasy cheeseburgers and their 32 oz. soda, they leave. Some carelessly leave wrappers, and soiled napkins among other bits of trash not thinking of the person who has the job of picking it up. Many may not even notice them, but they walk around wiping down tables and emptying out trash bins on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this is the job that Maria and Sol (each chose not to disclose their real names)take on for near-poverty wages. These two women were kind and brave enough to sit down with me and share their stories, each providing for many on such a limited budget that continues to shrink as the weeks go by...

The first high-profile casualties of the major budget cuts within the UC systems were those at the very bottom of the barrel, custodial workers. Recently, 35 custodial workers were laid off, with more set to come. Now, it seems as though a new group of workers on the chopping block will be food service workers. These are the stories of two women trying to make due with what is within their grasp. Unfortunately, what they are afforded is limited. This is not only due to financial issues within the UC systems, but country wide the declining economy that is causing people to lose their jobs.

Maria, a middle aged Hispanic woman, has worked at the University of California, Irvine campus for two years and faces losing her job. With two daughters here in U.S., three in Mexico, parents and brothers all depending on her, she does not know how to resolve her mounting problems. Recently, Maria was demoted from a full-time worker to a part-time worker and now a temporary worker. This situation is nothing new since she is now joining one of many who are facing similar situations. Several handfuls of food service workers have already been laid off. However, the excuse given to her was that she worked significantly more hours that her co-workers. She spoke angrily about the topic, believing that this was not the truth. To make matters even worse, she was told by her boss that by December she would be laid off.** What a wonderful Christmas present. She then proceeded to describe in detail how she felt that day and how exactly the events unfolded.

"But they told me that they furloughed me because of the cut backs. As far as I'm concerned it isn't true. The reason why they furloughed me was because I supposedly had [worked] more hours... When I found out, I was devastated, I thought to myself, 'What am I going to do now?' My family depends on me "

Although, Maria does plan to confront union leaders, as she and many of her other co-workers are facing many injustices, which include being laid off and losing work hours and days. However, Maria has been singled out once before as being "problematic" by her superiors since stands up for her rights and those of others. She once was a prominent member among the worker's union, however has her problems have grown her involvment in the union has decreased.

Now knowing that she will be laid off in December, Maria has huge concerns about her job and over the effects loosing it will have on her family. Maria has to feed, clothe numerous dependents on wages that could barely sustain a small family. Maria, a single mother, is the sole provider of a family of over 7, making $12/hour makes it nearly impossible to pay all living expenses. Maria faces even more personal adversities and her family ends up footing the bill. Then, Maria began by tearfully speaking about missing her daughters. Now with an even more limited budget, she has to

"wake up her daughters at 4am so I can drive them over to their fathers' house since I don't have the money to pay babysitting."

However, she does not have any problems with leaving her daugthers at her ex-husband's home, neither does she have any personal problems with him, rather she simply wants to spend as much time as she can with her daughters, which is understandable. She often comes home to an empty house all due to her financial issues, she cannot afford to see her daughters weekdays: five days are too many days to go without seeing your daughters, stated Maria. Her truck was also impounded for a whole month, with her mounting debits who knows what awaits her in the near future…

I returned to the food court once more to meet with another food service worker. Waiting I observed Sol, an older looking Hispanic woman, making sure every table is clean and suitable for sitting and eating. She agreed to meet with me quickly as she did not have much time to speak. Sol, a polite, quiet and reserved smiled and answered every question, however she did not leave the interview as happy as she began….

When asked about the budget cuts and its effects on her workload, she stated that she now has to "do the work that five people did months ago." She bears the grunt of a heavier workload but the same miserable wages. "It is very tiring doing all of the work by myself" she now has to empty out all of the trash bins, clean tables in a large food court. Many of these jobs are back-breaking especially for a woman of her age, she now has to carry and lift trash cans that two used to do. On top of all these issues, she faces losing her job, “no one is safe, no one is guaranteed they will have a job tomorrow.”

She even spoke of the negative effects that her job has had on her health.

“I went to the doctor and he told me a I had diabetes. No one in my family has diabetes. The stress of the job caused this.”

According to Sol, she is only given one break, a 15 minute break, this wouldn’t be uncommon if she worked four hour shifts. However, she works full-time, meaning she works more than 4 hours a day, so she should be untitled to a 30 minute break as well. This is due to her heavy workload, work that she has to perform all by herself. She has so much work that she is not even afforded all of her breaks. Yet, Sol did complain about the union's lack of interest and involvement in the worker's plight. However, she does not firsthand engage in union activites, rather she sits back and waits for something to change.

Director Jack McManus, of the Hospitality and Dining Services, sat down briefly with me to discuss the UC budget and its effects. According to McManus, approximately 162 cooks, food service workers, etc are employed under Hospitality and Dining Services. When questioned about the upcoming lay-off of Maria and possibly many more workers, he looked puzzled, as though he was hearing this for the first time. He attempted to clarify that NO workers have been laid off, and that they do not plan on doing so anytime in the near future. Needless to say, there is a disconnecr between what the workers are being told and what the heads of the department known.

According to the Employment Opportunities Bulletin, food service workers have a starting wage between $8.32 and $10.60/hour. This amount is miserable relative to the amount of duties they have to perform. However, another offical UC Irvine database tells a different story. DataWareHouse states that Food Service workers should have a starting wage of $12.50. Yet, DataWareHouse does provice some chilling statistic, with a beginning wage of $12.50, a worker stands to make $2,175.00 monthly and $26,100.00 annually, and this is before takes. One has to ask; how do these workers make do with such limited economic means?

*Interviews were conducted in Spanish, then closely translated into the English equivalent. All translations are approximate.

**Maria's lay-off situation is unknown, she could not be reached for a follow-up interview.


  1. This is probably one of my favorite pieces I've seen for this class. I love your observations and style of writing, you really portrayed the emotion of the women's situation.

  2. Thanks! It's so nice to know that someone likes what I write.

  3. Restaurant owners are constantly learning secrets and new strategies on how to best leverage their business with their food distributors