Some of Vanderbilt’s lowest-paid workers seek year-round employment

Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 10:05pm

Most workdays, Jackie Lucas wakes up around 3:30 a.m. She lays out clothes for two children, prepares medications for a husband battling severe artery complications, and arrives at the nearest bus stop to her modest Nolensville Road-area home by 5 a.m.

The family’s primary breadwinner, Lucas then crosses town and makes her way to Vanderbilt University, the elite academic institution where she spends the day.

Lucas is one of Vanderbilt’s some 200 dining staff employees, largely women and minorities, who feed the college kids as they stroll into Rand Hall between classes. College meals can seem like fine dining these days, with pork stroganoff, salmon fillets and rotisserie chicken among the staples.

It’s hard work, but Lucas loves cooking for the kids.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than putting together a good meal and for someone to say, ‘Ms. Jackie, this is so good,’ ” Lucas said.

But even though Lucas wears a white apron with the Vanderbilt crest and a nametag that says she’s a university employee, she feels like a second-class citizen on the 330-acre campus. And with Vanderbilt’s May 11 commencement day just around the corner, that feeling is about to hit home.

Following the upcoming exodus of students for summer break, the majority of Vanderbilt dining workers won’t have a job for the next three-plus months until class reconvenes in the fall. Dining workers call it a mass layoff. Only a few dozen employees, most on a part-term basis, are retained for the school’s limited summer dining services. A smaller number find temporary summer work at the school’s dormitories.

With an average salary of $16,500, these cooks, chefs and other dining crew earn well below the federal poverty line and represent some of Vanderbilt’s lowest wage earners. (Unlike many universities that outsource food services, including Nashville’s Belmont and Lipscomb universities, Vanderbilt’s dining staff members are direct university employees.) Tight family budgets for this group become tightest in May, June and July when paychecks stop coming in.

“We’ve got employees who’ve been here for years, and they’re laid off in the summer,” said Diana Johns, a Vanderbilt dining employee for more than 40 years who is trying to make things better for her younger colleagues.

“Times are hard,” she said, adding that the first few checks earned during fall semester usually go toward medical benefits that went unpaid during the prior months.

Dissatisfaction among Vanderbilt’s dining staff isn’t new at the prestigious private university, but frustration has bubbled up in recent weeks. Lucas and Johns were among a handful of dining employees who wrote a letter last week to Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, published in The Hustler, the school’s student-led newspaper. They said they would like to have a meal with him.

“Despite how hard it will be to keep food on the table, you have an open invitation to join us to see how we live and eat during this time of hardship,” the letter reads.

The next move comes May 1 — on May Day, an organized labor holiday — when Vanderbilt dining employees, alongside a coalition of supporters, including professors and students, have planned a protest outside Kirkland Hall, which houses the school’s administrative offices.

Dining staff employees, some of whom are organized with Laborers Local 386, the Vanderbilt workers’ union, are pushing for one of two remedies: Either the university deliver laid-off dining workers unemployment benefits during the summer, or ensure them other summer employment opportunities. One option for employment, they insist, could be in a different capacity at Vanderbilt University or its medical center. Vanderbilt, according to Nashville Area of Chamber of Commerce data, is the largest employment provider in Nashville. There’s also the multitude of companies that partner with Vanderbilt.

“Vanderbilt has a lot of connections in the community” said employee Anne Aluknois, who works at a coffee shop in the dining hall’s lower level. “Jobs could be developed on a regular basis, so that if you do well at that particular job every summer at a summer camp [for example], you would go back to the summer camp. That makes Vanderbilt look good in the community, and a dining worker — or five or 10 — goes to work.”

When The City Paper asked Vanderbilt whether the administration would comply with the dining staff’s requests, the university’s communications team quickly emailed a bullet-point “fact sheet” on Vanderbilt’s policy with dining workers.

The fact sheet states that Vanderbilt does not hire dining employees for “full-time, 12-month work.” Instead, it hires “regular” and “partial-year” employees with an understanding between both parties that the job timeframe runs from mid-August through the first week of May. Employment over the summer is offered to “regular” employees only when it arises.

According to university, Vanderbilt Dining “on its own” tries to find job opportunities for employees at local summer camps. Dining workers characterize the level of such attempts — summer work is never guaranteed — as “insulting.”

On the issue of unemployment benefits over the summer, Vanderbilt has the law on its side.

State statute says employees of educational institutions who do not work between academic years are not entitled to unemployment compensation as long as there’s “reasonable assurance” the individual will be retained for the next year. (This same law applies to professors and other university faculty, but they aren’t living below the poverty line.)

“Vanderbilt does not grant or deny any employee unemployment benefits,” Elizabeth Latt, Vanderbilt’s assistant vice chancellor of news and communication, said in a prepared statement. “These are granted to unemployed workers by the Tennessee Department of Labor based on eligibility requirements established by state law.”

Supporters of the dining workers’ cause don’t deny this interpretation of the law. They just have trouble understanding why a university that has such enormous resources — its endowment is $3.4 billion — and which proclaims a commitment to the entire Vanderbilt community won’t be flexible for the lowest paid.

“With dining workers, you have about 200 people living people below the poverty line at one of the richest entities in the country,” said Benjamin Eagles, a 2011 graduate of the school and organizer of OUR Vanderbilt, an organization formed to campaign for “economic justice” on the campus. “At the same place where there 10 people earning above a million dollars, you have people living in extreme poverty. And they’re the people who make the university run day to day.”

Labor at Vanderbilt netted a recent win when the university lifted the salaries of all service workers to $10.78 an hour.

But Vanderbilt professors like Lesley Gill, who chairs the university’s anthropology department, sees a larger theme of labor issues at the school. Clerical workers and administrative assistants have also struggled to find a voice, she said. At a recent Occupy Vanderbilt event that highlighted the concerns of the dining workers, Gill said she witnessed human resources employees monitoring the event.

“I found this just incredibly ironic at a university that prides itself on freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” Gill said. Tenured faculty enjoys those rights, she said, but not the dining workers. “It’s almost like there’s two paralleled universes at Vandy.”

Which goes back to the dining workers’ letter invitation to sit down and dine with Zeppos this summer.

“The chancellor has not received any kind of official invitation,” a Vanderbilt spokeswoman told The City Paper when asked whether Zeppos would take them up on the offer.

14 Comments on this post:

By: Rasputin72 on 4/30/12 at 5:19

Poor Vanderbilt! The "seasonal" workers are all over this country. They file for unemployment and go back to work when the new season starts. The bleeding hearts are going after the 1% with all of the envy and passion they can muster. This not only includes individuals but instituitions like Vanderbilt.

I wonder how many years will pass before the 1% becomes public enemy #1?

I would bet that there are many many of the 1 percenters who are already planning their escape from the screaming maddening huddled masses. In fact I know several.

By: RustyACE on 4/30/12 at 7:47

Dear Joey Garrison,

From the way the article is written, Vanderbilt should just go full Socialist and take the total that it pays every employee and divide it equally among every employee (The Professors and Administrators won't mind... they are WAY above the Poverty line so it makes it OK), so that way every single person at Vandy gets paid the same exact amount per hour per employee. I'm sure the doctors and nurses and administrators wouldn't mind sharing their hard earned money amongst everyone as long as it is "FAIR."

Since these workers accepted a job that they know is temporary, and it was known before they accepted their first pay check that they would not be working year round, why NOW? From the way the article is written, it implies that some of these workers have been coming back year after year.

Maybe the workers should convince the University that it needs to teach kids 52 weeks of the year and not have this pesky summer break. It's not like these kids are going home to plow the fields or pick cotton all summer long or work the farms to bring in the harvests. Why exactly is there a summer break anyway? Who made up the idea that you can only learn for 9 months of the year and then you have to stop learning or you'll learn too much? Divide the year into 4 quarters, and start teaching away.

I hearby award Joey Garrison the "The Most Progressive Liberal Pretend Reporter Award from the Nashville City Paper" of the second quarter 2012. You have worked hard in your reporting and have presented nothing but the facts so that your audience can know exactly what's going on in an unbiased way (NOT).

Jeff woods out wrote you for 2011 and got it for 2011.

Michael R. Burch out wrote you for the first quarter 2012.

Let's see who can out do themselves for the DNC and get the Nashville City Paper in the National Lime light for the most Progressive Liberal Reporting for the 3rd Quarter.

So far it has just been Male reporters and that doesn't sound very fair or equal. I want to hear from a diverse group, and so far that has not been the case. I think that the Nashville City Paper should lead by example, and take the total payroll and divide it equally amongst every single employee of the paper. This would be FAIR for each employee. This way the Paper could show Vanderbilt how it is done.

"We can't wait" for the Nashville City Paper to hire a very Conservative Reporter that can have some balance to the obvious Left Leaning Crew that you have on board writing currently.

Madison, TN 37115

By: Melstruck on 4/30/12 at 8:12

Rasp - Please read the article. "TN State statute says employees of educational institutions who do not work between academic years are not entitled to unemployment compensation as long as there’s “reasonable assurance” the individual will be retained for the next year."

I'm not saying they are right to ask Vandy to support them, but they are not collecting unemployment in the summer.

By: nashmusic2244 on 4/30/12 at 11:56

Using the Web link above, is an article about Vanderbilt University and its lowest paid employees, dining room staff (actually--the janitorial staff is perhaps in the same pay category).

What strikes me from this article is that "by appearance" the highlighted employee is an English speaking employee. What about the non-English employees that struggle, clean or dish out food in this prestigious university making minimum wage or some semblance to that?

I am not saying that knowing English is the full-assurance and guarantee that you will make lots of money, but it is the Golden key to give you passage towards successful assimilation, towards getting an education and towards becoming a productive member of our American society.

When I stood up in 2009 for the English language referendum in Nashville, TN (listen to attached MP3), Vanderbilt University was one of several Nashville area institutions and workplaces that contributed LARGE monies to defeat the referendum. The referendum was that English be the only language when one conducts business or interacts with the city of Nashville government.

These institutions, law firms, chambers and several politicians claimed that using English as the only language in city hall was unfriendly to immigrants. That is sent the wrong message to the world and others of Nashville not being friendly. But wait, placating non-English speakers with translators and translated documents (at taxpayer expense) is the better message? Basically, these institutions are saying----Don't bother learning English because we are going to provide you services in your respective language.

After all, in 1984, Tennessee passed English as its official language for all government functions and business. So why is Nashville violating state law when it doles out official government acts in other languages?

As my position remains, why doesn't Vanderbilt, the large and influential chambers of commerce, law firms agree that for an immigrant to learn English would greatly benefit them and give them the best tool to fight poverty and climb the social and economic ladder?

Over $ 300,000 was raised and paid out to defeat the 2009 referendum but very little goes into any fund to give non-English speakers the chance to learn English.

It is ironic, sad and disheartening that these institutions would rather keep "immigrants" dumbed-down than plant the very seed that will help them.

Eddie Garcia

By: TNCPA on 4/30/12 at 12:06

Vandy needs to follow the path of Lipscomb and Belmont and outsource their food services.

By: nashmusic2244 on 4/30/12 at 12:18

It needs to be stated and/or clarified that the English language issues of the 2009 referendum were NOT including emergency type interactions (ie) medical, EMS, law enforcement, education or the legal system.

It was to adhere to TN state law and for services like business permits, zoning, etc.

As an immigrant and for me personally, I would ensure that all non-speaking English immigrants learn English if they want to successfully assimilate in the USA and break the chains of subservient status waiting on government (BIG-BROTHER) to translate for them and do their bidding.....

But that is my personal viewpoint.

By: Rasputin72 on 4/30/12 at 7:14

Melstruck.......I stand corrected. Thank you I was not familiar with the TN statute regarding "retainable seasonal employment" I was thinking that North Carolina was indicative of the entire country.

By: NilsOrion on 5/1/12 at 5:27

The drift of most of these comments is that most of you are totally indifferent to the plight of those you consider to be beneath you or to people you consider to be not 'loved' by God the way you am, etc. You all have a perfect right to your opinion, of course. America's great period of success in the middle of the 20th Century was fueled by the idea that it was the raising up of the lower classes to the middle class would make the nation richer and stronger. The idea was based on common sense, not socialism, a concept most of you don't even understand. Also, many a great nation and/or empire has fallen because it ignored the needs of the masses. So, go ahead and express your opinion. I know! Just tell these 'little' people to eat cake! (oh, wait! these people actually MAKE the cakes!)

By: conservarage on 5/1/12 at 7:35

as long as people keep applying for these jobs, vandy will keep the rates/hours the same. if people would quit taking the jobs, things would change.

By: nashvillereader3 on 5/1/12 at 10:23

The lowest paid position @ Vanderbilt Dining is $10.78 an hour, which is the starting rate for dishwashers. The numbers in this article appear to be skewed to favor the article’s deeper intentions. The $16,500 is based on a partial year dishwasher who accepts and commits to working a 9 month position with the University. A full year dishwasher will make about $23,000 a year. I would assume that a partial year schedule would actually attract job seekers, such as working mothers who want to spend summers with their children or someone looking to earn some additional income for their family without a 12 month committment. I’ve spoken to several Dining employees who really enjoy having summers off. It’s unfortunate for those employees who commit to a 9 month position and do not have the financial means to make it through the summer months, however, is it fair to blame the University?

By: zachblume on 5/1/12 at 6:00

@nashvillereader3: Over 150 workers will laid off this summer. I have spoken to dozens of them -- I haven't heard a single one that "wants" to be laid off after making $16 grand. Most of these are barely hanging onto homes with families. I know at least one worker who is going to lose her home this summer. It is absolutely fair to blame the university for the poverty of its workers when the top 20 executives make a total of 24 million dollars a year. The revenue of the university is >3.5 billion dollars; we just spend $150 million dollars building a new set of dorms after spend $200 million building another set; it is ridiculous that amongst such vast wealth there are hundreds of marginalized people getting paid shit and then not even employed year round. It is absurd and insulting, we're one of the wealthiest non-profit (!) institutions in the whole country. Poverty and wealth only coexist because of a lack of empathy, the students here are beginning to reject that.

By: wisecracker on 5/1/12 at 11:25

Does everybody in America expect to be spoonfed? Why don't they just get a summer job somewhere else? If they don't like to work there, why don't they get a different job? Nobody puts a gun to their head and ask them to work there.

By: wisecracker on 5/1/12 at 11:29

@zachblume, the reason poverty and wealth co-exist is because people are NOT equal. They knew in advance that they weren't gonna work all year round, so why did they agree to it? Seems like the workers are actually at fault for entering into an agreement they can't honor.

By: nashvillereader3 on 5/4/12 at 9:58

@zachblume -I’m concerned emotions are leading your tirade. Many people have lost their homes in the past few years since our economic downturn; this probably has little to do with accepting and working a partial year schedule position. It’s more about personal responsibility and long standing financial decisions. 150 dining employees are being laid off for the summer and these individuals accepted a position that is 9 months out of the year. Did they accept this position and simply deny their upcoming layoff, thinking the University was going to make an exception to TN state law and allow unemployment benefits? This would be ideal given the unfortunate circumstances of these employees but it’s asking a lot from any employer… regardless of their annual revenue and upcoming construction projects. Alums are giving to Vandy’s endowment because they are interested in Vanderbilt’s academic mission. I can only assume Vandy’s endowment comes with stipulations regarding its usage – meaning providing unemployment benefits for partial year schedule employees is probably a stretch. This has been an ongoing issue with Dining and I’ve been around the University long enough to hear both sides of the story. I even hear from Dining management that this negatively impacts their ability to retain employees each year. They lose talented staff each year due to the upcoming layoff or these employees simply do not return in August and they constantly have to balance this unknown staffing issue.

More can be done. However, focusing on the top executives’ salaries isn’t productive. Equality in pay will never happen.