Smith College and employee union tentatively agree to contract after tense negotiations

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Smith College tentatively agreed to a new contract with the union representing its catering workers and housekeepers after a tense bargaining process in which employees sharply criticized the college, saying they were underpaid and in serious lack of staff.

The deal will give staff a 6.5% raise this year and 4% for the next two years, plus a $500 signing bonus. But according to union members, that includes commitments from the college to expand its membership – a bitter point of contention during deliberations.

Employees said their dwindling list of housekeepers, chefs, dishwashers and other dining room workers had made their jobs untenable. Dozens of kitchen and dishwashing crews are empty every day, several employees said, leaving students to line up for clean food and plates as professional chefs drop their posts to fill elsewhere, scrambling to run the kitchen. Housekeepers say they are exhausted by the extra work with a tenth of their colleagues on extended leave.

With a reduced staff but a consistently high workload, employees said they were demoralized, physically exhausted and – in the words of union president Ilse Barron – “at breaking point” with the school.

“Everyone looks exhausted and defeated,” TJ Lippie, a dining room chef, observed last week.

During negotiations, the administration of Smith College told employees that the kitchen and cleaning staff were at full strength, the union said.

Smith College in Northampton, pictured April 24, 2020. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen/The Republican)

In a brief statement, Smith College spokesperson Barbara Solow said the school will continue to assess its workforce to ensure community needs are being met. Smith had added positions and was actively recruiting whenever there was employee turnover, she said. Solow declined to say where the posts were added. She did not respond to a request for comment on the conclusion of the negotiations.

Employees will have to ratify the contract by a simple majority vote, expected in about three to four weeks after their attorney reviews the agreement.

Barron called the raise “probably the best we’ve ever seen.” On the previous pay scale, most union employees earned between $20 and $28 an hour, or about $40,000 to $58,000 a year for full-time work.

But Barron also said staffing issues remain a concern, including the college’s reliance on employees working overtime.

The union has about 135 members, down from more than 200 in the 1980s when some veterans were first hired. Along with a decline in professional staff, the kitchens lack the part-time help of a previously reliable labor pool of students, who would help make cookie dough, peel vegetables and perform other fundamental tasks that allow leaders to focus their attention elsewhere, Barron said.

But student roles in the kitchen have been reduced in recent years and are now limited to dishwashing and cleaning. Historically, freshmen who needed jobs on campus — sometimes as part of financial aid — worked in the dining halls. A school policy change about three years ago eliminated this requirement. Since then, students seem much more inclined to work in the library or fitness center than in the demanding environment of the kitchen.

With fewer professional employees and students avoiding kitchen work, cooking and dishwashing shifts are routinely being left open, several employees said. A dining room schedule reviewed by MassLive — with more than 150 different dishwashing crews spread over seven days the week of September 18 — showed nearly 90 unassigned slots. Managers frequently send messages to all staff calling on organizations to work overtime during particularly slow periods.

“Our whole department depends on us working overtime,” Lippie said. Last month – in response to Smith’s claim that the kitchens were fully equipped – the union called on employees to refuse overtime for two weeks. Many did, although some could not afford to skip the salary. Barron said some shorthanded dining halls closed for a few days.

Smith College

A dining hall at Lamont House at Smith College around midday on Monday 17 October 2022. The line of students exits. (Photo courtesy of Smith student Amelia Wesley).

“If every day they need people to work overtime, that’s not entirely for me,” she said.

Clean plates and food go quickly during the midday rush, staff and students said. Without a dishwasher, chefs and other staff are walking away from their duties to scrub the plates while students line up for 20 minutes for lunch.

Smith College

A dining hall at Lamont House at Smith College around midday on Monday 17 October 2022. The line of students exits. (Photo courtesy of Smith student Amelia Wesley).

“It slows down the food coming out, it slows down whatever they’re trying to accomplish,” Barron said.

The cleaners, represented by the same union, are also at their wit’s end. Meg Kennedy, a Smith employee since 1987, said 10% of the housekeeping workforce was on sick leave and the college had not hired temporary replacements. She said the extra work her staff would have to take on is too much for them.

With the contract tentatively settled, Barron said student union supporters would pressure the college to hire additional staff.

“Just because we settled the contract and got a pay rise for the staff doesn’t mean it doesn’t solve the problem of queues, understaffing and reliance on overtime,” he said. Baron.

“We will continue to work through the grievances with their professional expectations,” Kennedy said. “The workload is heavy. It’s very busy and it’s not an easy job, physically and mentally.

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