UC Cafés deal with worst understaffing Dining Services has ever seen

In this photo, two student employees are pictured at the Bookworms Café in UConn's Homer D. Babbidge Library. Almost six weeks into the semester, the cafés are experiencing the worst understaffing Dining Services has ever seen. (Rebecca Newman/The Daily Campus)

The UC Cafés are usually fully staffed and functional about two weeks into the semester. But almost six weeks in, the cafés are experiencing the worst understaffing Dining Services has ever seen, according to dining services area manager Ethan Haggerty and assistant director of retail operations Charles Couture.

All eight of the cafés, and the Dairy Bar are student-run, with the exception of one full-time employee per shift on a normal day of operation. 

Student workers aren’t necessarily assigned to a certain café; every café on campus is staffed using one collective pool of students (the Union and the dining halls are entirely separate pools). When functioning at full capacity, the café pool contains upwards of 200 student workers. 

This semester 140 students have been newly employed, boiling down to just 100 with the turnover. Because of the deficit, some student managers and full-time employees have voluntarily taken up approved overtime – over 40 hours a week – to help fill shift gaps, Couture and Haggerty said.

“We started recognizing the (understaffing) issue a week or two ago, and we’re starting to supplement it with full-time cashiers from the food court that are willing to work overtime,” Haggerty said. “Which is not ideal because you’re paying overtime to cover for student absences.”

Much of the problem, as far as current employees go, lies in an unusually high number of call-outs (for valid reasons). There have been some weeks where 40 percent of hours are unassigned because of student callouts. A rampant stomach bug early this semester also put a lot of students out of work at the same time, Haggerty said.

“It’s been a struggle for us this year to keep up with the number of absences,” Haggerty said.
Several incidents have happened where students who held jobs over the school year say they will come back after the summer but decide not to return at the last minute, leaving positions open on short notice. 

A large number of employees also graduated this past May, leaving Dining Services with a lot of shoes to fill. However, many new employees have quit shortly after starting for various reasons, including feeling overwhelmed with the time commitment and the job not fitting their personal schedules; requiring management to scramble for more new hires.

“I know of four people who quit this semester and only one who’s gotten hired,” said Sean Palzere, a third-semester pre-teaching student and current UC Café employee.

Palzere said he once worked a shift at Bookworms during which they were two workers down, including the student supervisor position.

Taylor Sisson, a seventh-semester elementary education student and UC Cafés assistant student manager, said that employment turnover is usually quick in the beginning of the semester. But of her three years as a manager, she said this semester seems to pose the most challenges. 

“We usually have a strong pool of applicants,” Sisson said. “This isn’t a reluctance to apply, but rather an issue with having employees that stay.”

In the beginning of the semester, the cafés were staffed with over 50 new employees. But many of those employees, who were all scheduled for future shifts, began to resign without a two week notice. In less than 10 days, over 20 new student workers quit – and they had all been scheduled for future shifts, forcing student managers to put in overtime to fill the gaps, Sisson said.

Sisson and her student management team hired over 25 additional employees over the past month, trying to find a permanent solution has yet to be fulfilled. She encourages any interested students to apply for a positions.

“Despite the difficulty and challenges we’ve been faced with this semester, and the outcome those challenges had for customers and wait times at the various locations, the staff that have remained with us through this have surpassed any expectation we could have asked of them,” Sisson said.

Couture said it’s a challenge to find students to work during midday hours because many students have classes during those times. Sisson, Haggerty and Couture said that because an employee’s role as a student comes before all else, scheduling can be complicated.

“We just hired a brand new group of students,” Haggerty said. “I think in the next week we’ll be back to normal. It’s been an exceptionally difficult semester for us."


Molly Stadnicki is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at molly.stadnicki@uconn.edu. She tweets @molly_stadnicki.