Lindsey West, Contributing Writer
VCU Dining Services is currently 175 people short of its employment goal according to Pam Neff, Aramark’s resident district manager. Dining locations are currently plagued by long lines, shortened hours and hiring signs across campus.
The decrease in foot traffic at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic forced staff cuts to be made for not only food service locations, but across all VCU departments, Neff said. In the 2020-21 academic year, VCUDine was down to about half of managerial staff, and few dining locations were open at a time. Student enrollment in Fall 2020 dropped by 686 students from the previous year, according to data from the university. With the return of students on campus in Fall 2021, dining locations are struggling to match how they operated before COVID-19.
“We knew that we were going to have a much more robust fall semester than we did last year,” Neff said, “but like everyone else, we didn’t know what that would look like.”
The university is striving to implement various hiring methods to increase the number of employees at on-campus dining locations; however, they are continuously understaffed, Neff said. Incentives for workers include free meals when working, discounted meal plans with payroll deductions, $150 referral bonuses and a $3 wage increase per hour for working after 4 p.m. and on weekends.
“With all of these incentives and things that we’ve put in place and all the advertising we’ve done, it has still been an immense struggle,” Neff said.
Richmond faced a loss of over 60,000 nonfarm jobs during June 2020 and has begun returning to normalcy, with hospitality — a broad service industry field including food service — having the greatest increase in job numbers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Richmond sits at a 27.8% increase in hospitality employees compared to the U.S. average of a 21.3% gain. VCU dining locations are not significantly increasing employment, Neff said.
“We’re seeing the difficulties, just in general across most industries, but especially the hospitality industry where we’ve been impacted by much higher wages being expected, and just for whatever reason, people were home for so long and it’s just really hard to get back into the workforce,” Neff said.
Some campus dining locations, like Starbucks and Shake Smart, are fully staffed, according to Neff. Finn Smith, a VCU junior, has been employed at the James Branch Cabell Library Starbucks since August 2020 and said he enjoys the class schedule flexibility and short commute, but feels wary about VCU’s COVID-19 protocols.
“They took away the screen protectors in front of the registers,” Smith said. “Students will come up and their masks will be under their nose or they won’t be wearing them at all and I think the students, frankly, don’t really care.”
VCU Libraries require masks to be worn at all times unless students are in a study room alone or “actively eating or drinking,” per the university’s COVID-19 guidelines.
Although the Cabell Library Starbucks is not understaffed, employees are still faced with a high demand level.
“I think they [VCU] didn’t really anticipate how much it would be coming back,” Smith said. “In particular, the library isn’t understaffed, but we are seeing too many people. We can’t keep up with the amount of people that come in.”
VCU’s shutdown caused many staff members to find a long-term job elsewhere, Neff said. Alchemy Coffee, located next to the Murry N. DePillars Building, has consistently hired students to be one-third to half of its staff, according to Alchemy Coffee owner Eric Spivack. Spivack pays $15 an hour compared to VCU’s $12 an hour.
“They stick around during their academic career,” Spivack said. “We don’t really have much turnover in that sense. It’s close to where they are and we understand the structure of class schedules.”
VCUDine plans on continuing to hire students as quickly and efficiently as possible, Neff said.
“We’re always open to hiring those student workers; whoever wants to come work for us, we’re willing to hire them,” Neff said.