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Students entering Nelson Dining Hall tap their student ID to spend one meal swipe.

Culinary Services’ dining halls struggled to maintain staff last year, higher hopes for coming years

Throughout the 2021-2022 academic year, Ohio University’s dining halls struggled to maintain and hire new employees despite mass hiring events and initiatives sponsored by Culinary Services.

At the start of the Spring Semester, student employees received wage increases and were paid at least $10 an hour depending on their positions. Before the increase, students either made $8.80 or $9.30 an hour, Autumn Ryder, assistant director for Culinary Services, said.

“We're trying as much as we can (to) increase where we can, where the university allows us financially,” Ryder said. “That has helped a little bit, but again, still not to the level that we want.”

Skylar Sands, a senior studying management information systems, has worked at Nelson Court since 2019. Sands said he thought the raises were necessary but unfair to current employees.

“There's no room for more pay other than the length of being there,” Sands said. “Say you're just hired; you can start out at level two at $11. I've been there for two and a half years as an office assistant; now, I make $11 and I have a lot more (to do) than just cleaning dishes.”

Although campus dining halls were open for the entirety of the school year, staffing levels never reached the level they had been before the COVID-19 pandemic, Frank Pazzanese, executive director of Culinary Services, said.

“We need anywhere from 1500 to 1700 students,” Ryder said. “(Fall Semester) we were only getting to 800 and now we're a little over 1000. We definitely are better than what we were, so it's progress; not as much as we want, but it's still progress.”

To encourage OU employees to recruit new members, Culinary Services started the Culinary Services Referral Bonus Program, which ran from Jan. 2 to May 1. OU employees were rewarded $1,000 if the person they referred was hired and remained on staff for at least 60 days. 

As of April 6, 21 employees had submitted referral forms and five new employees were hired from the referrals, Ryder said. 

Student employees were also given the opportunity to earn money from their referrals. For each student a current employee recruited to join Culinary Services, given the new employee was hired and continued to work for two weeks, the recruiter’s name was entered into a drawing for $50 in Bobcat Cash, Ryder said.

The incentives that were offered led to the hiring of multiple students and career employees; however, many employees did not stay long term due to outside factors, Pazzanese said.

“It's hard because we might hire two people and we lose one, and it's just the way the economy is; other companies are paying very aggressively right now,” Pazzanese said. “The hospitality business is the last to come back because we were the first to let people go, so we jaded our own people.”

Sands said team morale in Culinary Services has seemed to be at rock bottom since the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason. The stress of working during the dining hall’s ‘rush hours’ with fewer employees than are needed may be the cause of a less enjoyable work experience, Sands said.

With an expected increase in student enrollment for the Fall Semester, Pazzanese said it is necessary that student employment reach 1,700 to accommodate higher demand. 

The higher demand for culinary services may make it necessary to reopen Shively Court after it was closed two years ago and served as a COVID-19 testing center for nearly a year. 

Once OU’s student population increases enough to support a third dining hall and there are enough students to fulfill the positions needed to run the dining hall, Shively Court will reopen, Pazzanese said. 

There is no set reopening date for Shively Court, but Pazzanese said he would like to have it running by Spring of 2025.

Although current students will need to wait to experience Shively Court, Ryder said certain aspects of the dining hall will be available in the Nelson Court this coming fall.

“I'm excited to announce that we're bringing back the hand-dipped ice cream that was over at Shively, and a lot of home-cooked food that we had over there is going to be served over at Nelson,” Ryder said. “We had made fresh tortillas over there at Shively Grab-and-Go … we're going to start utilizing that again (and) bring back a little bit of Shively where we can.” 


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