By Christian Hince | October 18, 2021
Because of pandemic-related staffing shortages and supply chain issues, UAlbany’s Dining Services are struggling to serve a campus at full capacity.
The school has about 50 vacant spots in hospitality, according to Kevin D’Onofrio, resident district manager for Sodexo, the leading food service provider at UAlbany. These vacancies include jobs across the two residential dining halls, the Campus Center, and with catering. Hospitality services usually employ about 350 people total in a non-pandemic school year, he said.
These shortages come after a pandemic-ridden school year where Sodexo was focused on reducing staff. After UAlbany moved all food services to the Campus Center and closed down the dining halls at State and Indigenous Quad (then Indian Quad) in late Sept. 2020, 126 Sodexo employees were furloughed.
While Sodexo found that many of these workers came back to UAlbany, a significant portion of this group was still missing as the Fall 2021 semester began. “As we started calling them back to work, we probably saw somewhere around 80% of them return,” said D’Onofrio.
Compounding this shortage of labor is the high occurrence of workers taking days off due to personal issues. “When you already have vacancies, and now you have callouts due to illnesses, it now creates a bigger problem for us which is hard to overcome on a daily basis,” he said.
On top of the Sodexo employee turnover from last year, school dining is also in short supply with its other major labor force: students. “Prior to COVID, we had over 200 (student workers), and now we are hovering around 80,” said D’Onofrio. While the college has generally had a returning student employee pool of “about 150,” the pandemic has seen this number plummet down to zero, he added.
This dive in scholar employment has been a burden to Zaya Koegel, a sophomore who works at the Halal Shack. The popular location is one of five restaurants on campus which employs students who aren’t in college under a federal work-study arrangement. “Staff shortages have really been affecting us, especially when it comes to availability and needing to take days off,” they said. “We have very busy schedules, a lot of us have a lot to do.”
All of this leads to dissatisfaction from student consumers, who often find getting food to be time-consuming and frustrating. CBORD, UAlbany’s online ordering service gives students an estimate of 15 minutes for most orders. The wait is often longer, however. Sophomore Billie Swindler said that after ordering pizza at Baba’s Pizza, she “stood there waiting for two regular slices for 28 minutes.”
Swindler isn’t the only one who’s had to wait longer than expected for food. “It took me maybe 30 minutes to get my food,” said Jordan Schroeder, talking about a recent meal from the Halal Shack. “Baba’s Pizza completely ignored my order one time,” he added. “I didn’t get my food for an hour so I just got up and left.”
To solve staffing issues, the university is implementing continued efforts to advertise among the student body to find more employees, using signs across campus and other means. During summer orientation, new students were given box lunches that marketed job openings in areas such as the Campus Center. “Student employment tends to grow exponentially just through word of mouth,” said Lauren Mancuso, Director of Marketing at Sodexo. “One student has two or three friends, those friends come along with that student to apply, and now you’ve got four people instead of one.”
UAlbany has also incentivized current employees across the college to recruit others through a system of earnable bonuses across the semester. A similar concept has been implemented for those working overtime, some of whom worked every day for the first three weeks on 12-14 hour shifts. “If you work an additional three hours you get extra pay, if you work an extra six hours you get additional pay,” said D’Onofrio.
Coupled with the shortage of staff, school dining has also been troubled by a strained supply chain. UAlbany’s food stock sits at no more than 80%, enough to constrain what meals can and cannot be made. While items in especially tight supply include chicken breasts and bacon, scarcities can be found in various areas. “It could be olive oil or whatever, and if the recipe calls for it, what could you do?” said Stephen Pearse, head of University Auxiliary Services (UAS).
In addition, the lack of drivers to make food shipments causes even more difficulty in handling the supply chain. “The first four weeks we were making multiple drives to pick up product because we were either short or running out,” said D’Onofrio. This has also caused a drastic change in delivery schedule. “We would always receive our deliveries somewhere between 6 and 8, 9 in the morning,” he added. “Now they could come as late as 10 o’clock in the night.”
Because of shipment timing that fails to line up with the times students usually eat, those in hospitality services have resorted to using the freezer in Colonial Quad’s defunct dining hall for storage. “It’s like ‘Okay I can get a pound of whatever, I can store it now so I can draw from it so I’m not at the mercy of the distributor,” said Pearse.
These shortages become apparent in residential dining. “If you come to late-night dining there’s not really a lot of food,” said Riley Bean, a freshman who lives on State Quad. This is especially an inconvenience for Bean, who regularly attends nighttime dinner due to having classes later in the day.
On top of popular food items such as bacon and chicken which can run on empty, D’Onofrio also mentions the lean availability of paper and plastic products. This scarcity was likely apparent in one experience of Sam Nutig, another freshman who regularly uses State Quad’s dining hall. “One time there was no plates, there were no silverware,” she mentioned.
Despite widespread shortcomings in both manpower and resources in UAlbany dining services, D’Onofrio said the situation is looking up. “We are hiring more each week,” he said. “It is getting a little bit better, but it is small steps of better.”