In the corner of his office by the door, Dining Services Manager John Pasquarello has a glass display case of autographed baseballs. Upon first glance, it can be assumed that the signatures belong to his favorite players on the Philadelphia Phillies, his beloved team. But upon further inquiry, Pasquarello smiles and explains that they are actually signatures of his Muhlenberg Dining Services employees. “I’m very proud to lead this team,” he says candidly. “Everyone is doing such a great job.”
Pasquarello and his team noticed a problem in early July—right around the time that Sodexo (Muhlenberg’s dining services partner) makes their annual hiring push. The applicant pool was unusually dry, and the hiring fair held over the summer received only a small turnout.
The labor and supply chain shortages are not unique to schools in the Lehigh Valley. All around the country, retail and food service industries are experiencing the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some of those jobs—dishwashers, line cooks and shelf-stockers—require constant interaction with the general public. As the world continues to battle an invisible enemy, workers who once felt safe doing those jobs no longer do so.
Although the management team was able to raise wages by 12 percent this summer, these factors still have had a detrimental effect on Muhlenberg Dining Services’ workforce. Pre-pandemic, there were between 180-190 employees between the WDC, General’s Quarters, Java Joe’s and Freshens’ Cafe. Now, they’re struggling to meet 140.
As a result, the Dining Services team made adjustments to their hours and services. Although the Wood Dining Commons remains open for its usual 7 a.m.-8 p.m. schedule, not all of the stations do. The Noshery North and South alternate days; the Chew Street Deli only has to-go options; Mangia Mangia, which normally serves pizza and pasta daily, is now closed on the weekends. Additionally, Chef’s Table no longer has unique options and operates as a self-serve station for Magellan’s. Moreover, the staff’s hours and work schedules have been stretched; since Dining Services opened again in August, they have averaged about 300 hours of overtime.
“We’ve experienced it at its best, but that’s just not what it feels like right now.”Zach Rabishaw ’22
The modifications have been noticed by the Muhlenberg student body, especially the upperclassmen who are used to what Pasquarello describes as the “pre-pandemic standard.”
“We’ve experienced it at its best, but that’s just not what it feels like right now,” says Zach Rabishaw ‘22.
And for people with dietary restrictions, the limited options add another layer of frustration. Jake Watzman ‘22, who is a vegetarian, is annoyed with the lack of meatless options. “The two nosheries are really what allow people with dietary restrictions to get full meals,” he says. “With only one of those open, there are people who come in and literally can’t do anything.”
Ayden Levine ‘23 concurs, noting that “as someone with dietary restrictions, I have even less options to eat in the dining hall now that there are fewer stations open. There always has been an issue with getting food for myself, but this semester, with the worker shortage, it’s just that much harder. Yesterday, for example, the only thing listed gluten free in the entire dining hall was cauliflower. It’s just frustrating to not know if I’ll get food every time I walk into the dining hall.”
“None of the things that make the dining hall a number one dining hall in Pennsylvania are being offered and then it’s just a whole mess with that. So, it feels very disingenuous sometimes, especially that the college kind of just constantly boasts about that,” notes Jaxson Goldsmith ‘23.
Shelly Zaid-Kunz agrees. “I feel bad for the students who are paying so much money and then walking in and not getting enough food or not eating enough,” she states. “And then I feel bad for the workers who are not paid enough and working way too long of hours and also knowing that they’re doing the best that they can but also knowing that they’re disappointing students.”
This empathy for staff is not expressed in all of the student body— which some students say is a shame. “I wish there was a little more understanding in the student population about that instead of really jumping into ‘Oh, the dining hall options are terrible,” says Maereg Gebretekle ‘22. “Yes they are, but also dig deep and see what’s going on and try to care for the community because the Sodexo workers, the dining hall workers, are part of the community.”
“None of the things that make the dining hall a number one dining hall in Pennsylvania are being offered and then it’s just a whole mess with that. So, it feels very disingenuous sometimes, especially that the college kind of just constantly boasts about that.”Jaxson Goldmith ’23
Despite obstacles, the staff are attempting to keep their heads held high. “Out of all the places I’ve worked, Muhlenberg College has been my favorite,” says D’Angelo, who works at the Wildfire Grill. “People here are so respectful.”
“I really do enjoy working here,” adds Lois Zielinsky, a server who has worked for Dining Services for 13 years. “Once you don’t like what you do, you may as well quit. And I’m not there yet!”
In the meantime, Pasquarello and the rest of the management team are working on ways to ease the burdens placed on the overworked staff. For current Muhlenberg students, there are several work study positions open on HandShake. “If there are students out there that are looking for work, we encourage them to come speak with us,” says Pasquarello.
Pasquarello is optimistic that things will get back to normal soon. The one thing that is never changing, he says, is the constant communication with the Muhlenberg community. “We listen to our guests. When things get back to normal, we’re going to rely on the feedback from our students. But in the meantime, we continue to pivot.”