Facing long break, students create fundraiser for dining hall workers

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Nov. 20, a group of students at the College of William and Mary launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for dining hall workers who are not receiving any income during the extended winter break. A similar fundraiser organized by many of the same students raised more than $26,000 for dining staff in April. The current fundraiser has a $15,000 goal and is accepting donations through Venmo and Paypal.

The students launched this initiative as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the College having an accelerated fall semester that ended before Thanksgiving. In preparation for the spring semester the College has implemented a phased return to campus resulting in students arriving towards the second week of February. Due to the changes, the College is currently experiencing a longer winter break than normal, leaving many dining staff with additional weeks without income.

“With a two month-long winter break ahead of us, we are renewing our fundraising efforts to help William & Mary dining workers impacted by this unusual time,” the fundraiser’s webpage says. “Many workers are unable to, find employment during the long winter break and need help paying for rent, food, and monthly bills. The funds will go directly to William & Mary hourly dining workers who are not compensated during this time and who need financial assistance with living expenses.”

“With a two month-long winter break ahead of us, we are renewing our fundraising efforts to help William & Mary dining workers impacted by this unusual time. Many workers are unable to, find employment during the long winter break and need help paying for rent, food, and monthly bills. The funds will go directly to William & Mary hourly dining workers who are not compensated during this time and who need financial assistance with living expenses.”

Athena Benton ’21 helped organize both fundraisers. She said that the current fundraiser was created because Sodexo, the private company through which  the College subcontracts their dining staff, does not pay workers during academic breaks.

“We’ve had a really good response and really good donations,” Benton said. “I think because we already had the first fundraiser several months ago, people know about this issue and we think a lot more students are caring about this.”

Allison Nicole, a Sodexo employee who has worked at the College dining facilities for 10 years, has also been impressed by the support from students.

“The students are stepping up, and to me that shows me how special William and Mary really is,” Nicole said.

But Nicole is also disappointed by how Sodexo has been handling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including their refusal to pay staff during extended academic breaks.

“Sodexo is a big company, Sodexo really doesn’t care,” Nicole said. “For a big corporation, to me personally, they do not care.”

She described a culture of apathy within Sodexo which has left many employees, including herself, struggling to make ends meet in the middle of an economic crisis and a deadly pandemic. Even basic necessities like health insurance have become difficult commodities for the College dining staff to acquire.

“I’m one of the ones who can’t afford to go without any insurance,” Nicole said. “Thankfully, I’m able to pay for it, but if I didn’t have my husband’s income, where would I get my income from? It doesn’t matter to Sodexo.”

Because of this, Benton and the other organizers are calling on College President Katherine Rowe’s administration to intervene and support the dining staff.

“We really want them to set up their own fund, or at least make their own contribution to our fund,” Benton said. “They don’t claim ownership over Sodexo employees because they’re subcontracted even though they’re such a vital part of the school and the community … we would really like them to have a dialogue with us about this issue, at the very least.”

College spokesperson Erin Zagursky said that the administration has been inspired by the work of the student organizers.

“The support efforts we are seeing from our students are not surprising,” Zagursky said in a written statement. “William & Mary is a close-knit community, and our students are known for their caring nature exemplified through their volunteerism throughout our community, across the country and abroad. The students’ generosity is inspiring.”

However, the administration has not announced any plans to support the fundraiser. They also have not announced any plans to directly support members of dining staff who will not be receiving any income for the remainder of the extended break.

According to Jason Aupied, Resident District Manager for W&M Dining Services, Sodexo has taken steps to ensure employees receive at least some payment over the break.

“Sodexo provided holiday pay for Thanksgiving and the day after and will do the same for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day,” Aupied said in a written statement. “Sodexo also offered a perfect attendance incentive for the fall semester, which provides two days of incentive pay to any frontline workers who have perfect attendance.”

However, Benton said that these steps are not enough. She described how higher wages and further support is necessary to help employees of the College handle extended breaks.

“Many dining staff members will go a whole two months of time without consistent pay from Sodexo this winter, and this is the same during the rest of the breaks that William & Mary has every year,” Benton said. “We want to see Sodexo actually provide employment and a living wage that will prevent their employees from having to worry about bills and finding another job during these extended breaks.”

Editor’s Note: After interviewing sources and writing this article, the author started to help out with the events described. His involvement is not on behalf of The Flat Hat.