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No Such Thing As a Free Lunch

HSU’s Dining Services employees don’t receive a free meal while on shift

While many food service employees receive heavily discounted meals or one free meal per shift, dining services student employees at Humboldt State University get the same meal discounts as anyone who pays with J-points: 25% off.

Abigail Rosales, junior communications major and a floor manager at The Depot, said employees frequently complain about the minimal discount.

“It would be nice to know that our job and our work is valued,” Rosales said. “Because if we’re just getting the same discount as people who already live on campus, then there’s not really an incentive food-wise. Obviously we’re getting paid, but it’s always a nice bonus if you get any benefits while working here.”

Rosales previously worked at the fast-casual restaurant chain, The Habit Burger Grill. Employees received a free burger and fries every shift, and got 50% off everything else.

Rosales said a free or more discounted meal per shift would likely make for a better workplace.

“I think if we did get that, a lot of us would be a little less grumpy,” Rosales said. “Because sometimes we’re tired or hungry, and sometimes we just don’t have money on us, so we get irritated.”

Abigail Rosales, a junior communications major, standing in The Depot at Humboldt State University on Nov. 8. Rosales, a floor manager at The Depot, said student dining employees often feel irritated with the lack of an extra discount, but never feel like they can do anything about it.

William Weinberg, a forestry senior and College of Natural Resources representative and vice chair, said over the phone that he’d be interested in seeing HSU try a pilot program giving free meals to student employees.

“I think it would be cool if it did happen, or if they ran a pilot to see if it would work,” Weinberg said. “Would the costs of that free meal maybe make up for more work ethic, more happier workers?”

Rosales said many student employees bring their own food or have to clock out from work early to go home and eat before their next class to avoid paying for a meal. But according to Rosales, even a cheap meal would be helpful.

“Even just like the fries and a corn dog,” Rosales said. “I think those are the two cheapest things. If we just get that, that’ll probably be enough for a lot of people.”

Director of Dining Services Ron Rudebock pointed to money as the primary issue behind the lack of an extra discount for student employees.

Rudebock, who has been the director of dining services for 15 years, said declining enrollment has reduced dining services income, while increases in minimum wage and insurance prices, alongside efforts to provide more organic and local food options, have increased costs.

“It’s unfortunate, because we’re trying to keep our food costs lower while our costs are going up,” Rudebock said. “So how do you balance those two?”

Dining services at HSU are not run by the university, but instead by the University Center. The UC is a nonprofit auxiliary corporation that works with HSU, but is not owned or operated by the school. The UC operates on-campus entities like dining services, the library, Center Arts and Center Activities.

While student fees provide money for some of the services, Rudebock said dining services runs entirely on the income from student food purchases.

In fact, Rudebock said dining services has to pay HSU rent for their facilities along with utilities, garbage, internet and so on.

“It’s a separate business,” Rudebock said. “And we actually pay the university money.”

All California State University Dining Services are run by auxiliary corporations, according to CSU Public Affairs Manager Hazel Kelly. We have reached out to all CSUs to determine which CSU dining services provide free meals to student employees.

Thus far, only five CSU’s have responded.

Student employees at CSU Bakersfield and CSU Monterey receive free meals during shifts, and according to a representative for Sonoma State, SSU student employees get free meals for shifts longer than four hours and free snacks for shifts shorter than that. San Francisco State gives its student employees a free meal if they work a shift longer than five hours, and CSU Chico gives students meals for $2.50 for shifts longer than four hours. In addition, Chico gives student employees 10% off all food items purchased on campus.

Director of Dining Services Ron Rudebock in his office on Nov. 8. Rudebock said dining services has hit tough times lately due to declining enrollment and increased expenses. | Photo by James Wilde

Any profit that dining services makes goes back into its operations, according to Rudebock. Rudebock pointed to The J’s more than 25-year-old dishwasher as one example of an upcoming expense. Rudebock said the dishwasher will cost around $250,000 to get replaced.

“We need the reserves to be able to pay for everything so we can stay in business,” Rudebock said. “But we don’t have a set of stockholders. We don’t have—you know, like a corporation has a set of stockholders that have got to make money. We don’t have a magic investor.”

Rudebock said the UC lost around $100,000 in each of the last two power outages, during which The J offered free meals to students, faculty and staff. Rudebock said HSU may only partially reimburse dining services for those costs.

In regard to free meals, Rudebock said that dining services doesn’t have any plans to provide a larger discount for student employees. However, Rudebock said the issue is not off the table. HSU could suggest larger discounts for student employees to the UC, and while the UC does not have to follow HSU’s suggestions, Rudebock said it wants to work with the university.

“We need the reserves to be able to pay for everything so we can stay in business. But we don’t have a set of stockholders. We don’t have—you know, like a corporation has a set of stockholders that have got to make money. We don’t have a magic investor.”

Ron Rudebock

We reached out to HSU to see if it has any intentions to push for free meals for student dining employees. We will update this story if we receive a response.

At the moment, HSU dining services employs about 350 students and 26 full-time employees, which, according to Rudebock, is the highest proportion of students to full-time employees in the CSU system.

Aileen Dominguez, a senior political science major who works as a student assistant at The Depot, said she sometimes wishes there were more full-time employees because when she started the position she felt she was never properly trained.

“I was just kind of put in with my coworkers who actually just said, ‘Oh, this is what we do, or this is how we do it—or this is how the girl before taught me how to do it,’” Dominguez said.

Dominguez said this has led to confusion and she’s not always sure how to train new employees.

Aileen Dominguez, a political science senior, studying in the library on Nov. 10. Dominguez works as a student assistant at The Depot. Dominguez suggested that a bigger discount for dining service employees might increase sales. | Photo by James Wilde

“I’ll say, ‘This is what you do, I think. At least, this is how I’ve seen the other girls do it,’” Dominguez said.

As for meal discounts, Dominguez echoed Rosales.

“I think we all talk about it,” Dominguez said. “But they probably don’t have enough money to feed us all.”

Dominguez said she only eats at The Depot when she has to—typically on Thursdays, when she is on campus all day. She said that employees frequently go to Oh Snap or elsewhere instead of buying food on campus.

Dominguez suggested that a larger discount might actually help bring in more business, but she doubts that one will be offered.

“I just feel it’s unfair that we kind of have to choose,” Dominguez said. “Like, ‘I don’t want to eat this right now, because I have to buy other things,’ or say, ‘I’m just gonna go eat a cup of noodles at home because this burrito isn’t worth it.'”

Rosales made a similar statement.

“On our end, we kind of pick and choose if we want to pay for something,” Rosales said. “If we’re really that hungry to pay for it or if we’ll just deal with it and not.”

This story will be updated if and when other responses for comments are received.

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