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Call for faculty and staff volunteers to work in MSU dining halls draws criticism amid staffing shortages

211022_Brody.jpg
Michelle Jokisch Polo
/
WKAR-MSU
Michigan State University dining hall Brody Square is pictured on Friday, October 22, 2021. Signs at the entrance indicate that the dining hall is currently closed to the public.

There are still widespread staffing shortages at Michigan State University’s residential dining halls halfway through its first semester with students back on campus since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hours have been cut and services have been pared down while the university works to bring in more students and full-time staff.

But a recent call for faculty and staff volunteers to pitch in without pay is drawing backlash.

We've gone from being down about 90 people a day to being down about 50 people a day.
Kat Cooper, MSU Chief Communications Officer for Student Life and Engagement

When the fall semester started at MSU, only 400 students were working in the school’s dining halls.

Kat Cooper is the Chief Communications Officer for Student Life and Engagement at MSU. She says during a typical academic year, that number would be 4,000.

She says they've faced retention problems because of the pandemic.

"We have two classes of students for whom this is their first time on campus," she said. "We've typically seen that students in their first semester on campus aren't really ready yet for a job. They're getting the lay of the land. They're understanding their course load."

She says after putting on multiple hiring fairs, raising student wages, and putting administrative Residential and Hospitality Services staff on shifts, they have gotten closer to closing that gap.

211022_brody_square.jpg
Michelle Jokisch Polo
An entrance to MSU dining hall Brody Square is pictured on Friday, October 22, 2021.

"We've gone from being down about 90 people a day to being down about 50 people a day," she said.

Cooper says as the university works to fill these positions, some members of the campus community reached out.

"We've been hearing from the academic side and the staff side of of MSU, 'How can we help?' And so, we issued an invitation," she said.

This week, an email went out campus wide asking for faculty and staff to step in to mitigate shortages, especially during evening and weekend shifts.

But this call for volunteers came as a shock to Kate Birdsall.

She’s the president of the university’s Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty.

"I legitimately thought it was a joke," Birdsall said.

I legitimately thought it was a joke.
Kate Birdsall, President of MSU's Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty

She says she sees the ask as anything from a tactical error from the university, to something far more disturbing.

"We are legitimately concerned about our students not being able to eat and believe that the university is attempting to manipulate our care and consideration for students into unpaid labor," she said.

Birdsall also says the risks are far too great for the members of her union.

"We're being asked to go into what Ingham County has identified as a COVID hotspot and teach face-to-face," she said. "And now in addition to that, 'Hey, volunteer your nights and weekends.'"

Cooper says the request for volunteers was made in response to people who were already asking about ways to fill in.

It is simply intended as an invitation that if someone would like to help out, we would certainly appreciate their time and talents.
Kat Cooper, MSU Chief Communications Officer for Student Life and Engagement

"It is simply intended as an invitation that if someone would like to help out, we would certainly appreciate their time and talents. But it is not any sort of demand or requirement," Cooper said.

MSU Economics Professor Charles Ballard says it’s going to take more than volunteer work or even higher wages to bring the university out of this staffing shortage.

"A lot of people are hesitating to get back into the labor market," he said.

That may be because of health concerns, dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions, or happiness with the work they’re doing.

Ballard says that includes workers who belong to labor organizations like the Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty.

A lot of people are hesitating to get back into the labor market.
Charles Ballard, MSU Economics Professor

"I think there is a heightened amount of agitation and feeling that worker organizations are looking for ways to try to improve the lot of their members more than maybe they were five years ago," Ballard said.

For Birdsall, the university’s request is another addition to a growing list of missteps that have been committed this year.

 "It's untenable," Birdsall said. "Unpaid labor is unethical."

And as millions of American workers do a once in a lifetime reevaluation of their connection to their work life, Ballard says it's clear this worker shortage won’t end soon.

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