Opinion submission: Let’s be great customers, on and off-campus

| Class of 2023

As I managed my way through the crowds to retrieve my chicken club sandwich at the Parkside Cafe one recent afternoon, I had a sort of epiphany: There are a lot of people trying to get lunch. And yet I didn’t have to wait very long. Which means the dining staff prepares the food really quickly. I suppose it’s necessary, given that most students, faculty and staff may only have 30 minutes to eat, or are scarfing something down on their way to their next class or meeting. But this shouldn’t stop us from being understanding customers.

Recent stories of students being rude to dining staff aren’t unique to Washington University; there have been numerous stories of rude customers in the news during the past several months. Items of frustration have included limited menus and slow service, among others. However, what many people don’t consider is that there is a national labor shortage (a problem too before COVID-19) with foodservice and hospitality being among the most impacted industries. While customer volume has largely returned, restaurant employment is still down about 12% compared to pre-pandemic levels, equating to 1.5 million jobs. Relatively lower pay scales, additional government benefits and unpredictable hours have left a dearth of staffing in the restaurant industry specifically. 

The economic impact of the coronavirus is real and only just beginning. Vice President Kamala Harris recently quoted in June that about a third of U.S. small businesses had closed since January 2020. Well over 100,000 businesses have closed overall in the country during this time period, with Missouri and the St. Louis region hit hard because of low vaccination rates and the recent termination of eviction moratoriums. The on-campus Subway has had a sign asking for patience while they are understaffed. The custom ordering at the Bears’ Den stir fry and pasta stations has not yet returned due to a staffing shortage. At these and other on-campus dining locations, we need to be mindful of this and avoid complaining simply that the lines are too slow or that “there is nothing good to eat.”  We also need to remember that more of us are on campus than have been in a year and a half I know I got used to the convenience of not waiting in line last year. 

But there are more concerns than what we might observe. As a result of the labor shortage, many cooks, servers and other food service staff in our community and across the country are overworked. This can lead to diminished mental health and physical tolls, especially with the pandemic still raging. To add insult, some customers are making things more difficult as they venture out for the first time since March last year. One restaurant on Cape Cod, the popular Massachusetts vacation destination, decided to close for a “day of kindness” after an incident with some particularly abusive customers made staff cry.

These examples all lead to a conclusion: that WashU needs to pay its staff better. This isn’t all, though. Consistent schedules are just as important: on one jobs site, the job description for one back-of-house position includes that “hours will vary,” giving few additional details about pay or schedule. Having worked in foodservice, I can vouch that inconsistent hours are not only an inconvenience, but cause stress when planning life away from work. For working parents, consistency is clearly necessary to arrange childcare. If an employer pays employees fairly, there should be no problem with advertising wages or salaries. As you may have noticed, prices of most campus food increased due to rising supply costs and inflation. When employees are well-paid and well-treated, there will be less turnover and greater efficiency. We can hope that WashU will fill its staffing gaps and not unfairly leave the burden on the current staff. 

In the meantime, we can appreciate the great dining options on (and off) campus. I’m certainly excited to try the different dining locations on campus with in-person classes taking me away from the South 40 for most of the day. At WashU, we are very fortunate to have such a choice. While we ultimately can’t control the economy or the University’s hiring decisions, we can be great customers, supporting our foodservice staff by being patient, courteous and friendly. And always tip well!

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