While the 2021-22 academic year promised a return to a fresh, familiar routine at Boston College, an essential piece of the everyday ambience has been missing—the soft chatter amongst studiers mixed with the whirring of coffee machines and scent of chocolate in the air is continuously absent on the bottom floor of Stokes South.
On Monday, September 27th, The Chocolate Bar finally opened, almost a month after the beginning of classes. Countless students celebrated the addition of chocolate treats and hot coffee to their daily routines by waiting in a line that nearly stretched all the way to the Stokes classrooms. Yet the excitement among the students was not entirely reflected behind the counter—the few cashiers and baristas who opened shop were understaffed and, perhaps, underprepared.
Fast forward a few weeks later to October 4th when BC Dining announced that the Chocolate Bar would close for the remainder of the week due to staffing shortages, further proof of an inconsistent schedule for the coffee shop. The on-and-off hours of operation throughout the dining halls on campus are a valid grievance for students, but are also reflective of a much larger problem that is affecting labor operations across the nation.
Amidst the protocols and regulations of COVID-19, BC Dining has strived to make their services look as “normal” as possible. despite these efforts, many students have taken note of increased wait times, price hikes, and shortages in both supply and variety. From the Rat to Addie’s to even CoRo Café, staff shortages have dominated the BC Dining experience, leading non-essential dining locations, such as The Chocolate Bar, to have late openings and inconsistent hours of operation. BC Dining has recognized the clear need for more employees since May 2021 and has tried multiple avenues to recruit more workers. Job fairs on and off campus, employee referral programs, virtual job listings, social media advertisements, and First Year Experience promotions were all parts of their campaign according to Beth Emery, Director of BC Dining Services.
The issue of dining staff shortages is hardly exclusive to Boston College. BC is just one example of the nationwide labor shortages impacting the food service industry, in which inadequate wages, excruciating schedules, and lack of support from higher-ups are becoming all the more clear in the face of the pandemic.
“Like everyone else in the hospitality industry, we have experienced significant turnover during the pandemic,” Emery stated.
Throughout the United States, COVID has derailed the work prospects of lower and middle class individuals in particular. Often forced to choose between pursuing a heavily-scheduled job and spending valuable time with their families, prospective workers have been unable to rely on receiving a consistent and sustainable wage. Additionally, companies that have been thrown into uncharted territory since March of 2020 have chosen to lay off their employees at an unprecedented rate that is worsening due to the Delta variant. Employment insecurity rates are now comparable to times of economic depression, leading those who potentially could work to avoid seeking employment. Lack of trust in higher-ups and a desire to spend time with at-risk family members are among many reasons for the continued staff shortages on-campus and beyond.
Emery confirmed that some of the biggest contributing factors to labor shortages were “concern for personal health and safety, child care, hours available to work, and more.”
While staffing shortages are apparent in every job sector, consumers can directly feel its impact in food service, a highly complex industry. Jobs for farmers, transporters, processors, and restaurant workers are available, yet none are being taken, perhaps out of employees’ fear that they will be let go as quickly as they were initially hired. Additionally, many food service jobs require long training periods and physically demanding shifts, leading those who may not have the bodily capacity to handle such tasks to avoid seeking employment in the industry.
Employment shortages have thus given rise to overall food shortages and delays, and no area has been as drastically impacted as schools. From elementary schools to colleges, cafeteria workers throughout the nation have been struggling to offer staples such as chicken, bread, and plastic utensils, contributing to a lack of variety of food selections—as well as unhealthier options. The United States’ extensive fast food culture, for example, is enabled by the fact that unhealthy food is easier to mass produce, and is therefore more reliable during times of uncertainty.
Schools are in a bind: they need to feed their students by whatever means necessary, but they also need to follow national nutritional standards (Those requirements, however, are gradually being made more flexible.) According to a survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association, 97% of K-12 school nutrition directors are concerned about pandemic supply chain disruptions, and 90% are worried about staffing shortages. Students who rely upon their school dining services as their primary source of meals are at risk of losing out on key meals of their day. They are also forced to endure longer wait times and higher prices, which especially harms low-income families.
BC Dining has certainly been a victim of these trends. While they have been able to provide rotating food options throughout the day at Lower, Mac, and the Rat, their cafés have been taking the worst hit. The Chocolate Bar and CoRo Café have frequently been closed during their regular hours due to staffing shortages, and even when they are open, many students have taken note of incorrect drink orders or subpar quality of food—an issue that can only be solved with time as employees gain more experience.
“Our first priority is staffing the three main dining halls, Lyons, and Hillside,” explains Emery. “As we continue to hire students and full time and temporary employees, we will open the smaller dining locations on campus and expand hours of operation.”
Despite the clear need for more hires, why aren’t more BC students applying for jobs? One potential explanation could be that most students, who are aware of the staffing shortages, are cautious of being overworked, since they know that they would be part of only a small group of employees. There is also the possibility that a high portion of students aren’t in need of a job—BC has a large population of wealthy students that have no need to add work to their schedule in order to have financial stability. Additionally, working in dining services may put individuals at more risk of becoming ill compared to office or at-home work. The most general explanation, however, is that right now simply isn’t the right time for them to be finding a job. During a pandemic, individuals want to focus on the few things that are most important in their lives, whether that is solely being a student and passing their classes or spending as much time with their friends and families as possible; a work schedule may complicate their ability to maintain those values.
However, several students have found that BC Dining is exactly the kind of employment that they are looking for. Rowah Ibnaouf (‘25), a recent hire by BC Dining, says that “It’s pretty hard to find a job once the school year starts. Everyone is either hooked up with the comfy desk jobs from the year before or by August, when I didn’t really know how student employment worked. BC Dining was willing to take me on pretty immediately while being able to accommodate my schedule.”
While it is unclear when national trends of labor and supply shortages will subside, BC Dining is determined to ensure that these troubles impact BC as little as possible. Currently, they are still hard at work in recruiting both student employees as well as off-campus community members to join their staff.
“We welcome all BC students to reach out to us,” says Emery. “We offer flexible shifts, a free meal if you work 4 hours, great experience, and a fun environment.”
As she gets ready to begin her weekend job at Mac, Ibnaouf reflects that, “The other students there, and especially the people in charge, were super nice and said the work was straightforward and paid well, which ticks off all the boxes for me as a student worker.”
While both BC Dining and the nation are working to overcome the current supply and labor shortages, it is essential to recognize that these trends, although primarily dictated by COVID, are also reflective of the current state of essential labor. Particularly in food service, workers need to be assured that their employers will provide for them via a living wage, reasonable schedule, and benefits such as insurance and paid leave. Nationwide food service establishments should be aware of the impact that offering an easy application process and enticing pay will have on their labor supply. As destructive as COVID has been, it has also presented the US with a perfect opportunity to fundamentally change the systems that have been inhibiting its full recovery from the pandemic.
Bringing food to the table is not as simple as it seems on the surface. As BC Dining continues to strive to provide for students and staff, keep in mind the struggle that employees are facing behind the counter, and that in the overall scheme of things, perhaps missing a cup of coffee from the Chocolate Bar isn’t the end of the world.