Most workdays, Jackie Lucas wakes up around 3:30 a.m. She lays out clothes for two children, prepares medications for a husband battling severe artery complications, and arrives at the nearest bus stop to her modest Nolensville Road-area home by 5 a.m.
The family’s primary breadwinner, Lucas then crosses town and makes her way to Vanderbilt University, the elite academic institution where she spends the day.
Lucas is one of Vanderbilt’s some 200 dining staff employees, largely women and minorities, who feed the college kids as they stroll into Rand Hall between classes. College meals can seem like fine dining these days, with pork stroganoff, salmon fillets and rotisserie chicken among the staples.
It’s hard work, but Lucas loves cooking for the kids.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than putting together a good meal and for someone to say, ‘Ms. Jackie, this is so good,’ ” Lucas said.
But even though Lucas wears a white apron with the Vanderbilt crest and a nametag that says she’s a university employee, she feels like a second-class citizen on the 330-acre campus. And with Vanderbilt’s May 11 commencement day just around the corner, that feeling is about to hit home.
Following the upcoming exodus of students for summer break, the majority of Vanderbilt dining workers won’t have a job for the next three-plus months until class reconvenes in the fall. Dining workers call it a mass layoff. Only a few dozen employees, most on a part-term basis, are retained for the school’s limited summer dining services. A smaller number find temporary summer work at the school’s dormitories.
With an average salary of $16,500, these cooks, chefs and other dining crew earn well below the federal poverty line and represent some of Vanderbilt’s lowest wage earners. (Unlike many universities that outsource food services, including Nashville’s Belmont and Lipscomb universities, Vanderbilt’s dining staff members are direct university employees.) Tight family budgets for this group become tightest in May, June and July when paychecks stop coming in.
“We’ve got employees who’ve been here for years, and they’re laid off in the summer,” said Diana Johns, a Vanderbilt dining employee for more than 40 years who is trying to make things better for her younger colleagues.
“Times are hard,” she said, adding that the first few checks earned during fall semester usually go toward medical benefits that went unpaid during the prior months.
Dissatisfaction among Vanderbilt’s dining staff isn’t new at the prestigious private university, but frustration has bubbled up in recent weeks. Lucas and Johns were among a handful of dining employees who wrote a letter last week to Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, published in The Hustler, the school’s student-led newspaper. They said they would like to have a meal with him.
“Despite how hard it will be to keep food on the table, you have an open invitation to join us to see how we live and eat during this time of hardship,” the letter reads.
The next move comes May 1 — on May Day, an organized labor holiday — when Vanderbilt dining employees, alongside a coalition of supporters, including professors and students, have planned a protest outside Kirkland Hall, which houses the school’s administrative offices.
Dining staff employees, some of whom are organized with Laborers Local 386, the Vanderbilt workers’ union, are pushing for one of two remedies: Either the university deliver laid-off dining workers unemployment benefits during the summer, or ensure them other summer employment opportunities. One option for employment, they insist, could be in a different capacity at Vanderbilt University or its medical center. Vanderbilt, according to Nashville Area of Chamber of Commerce data, is the largest employment provider in Nashville. There’s also the multitude of companies that partner with Vanderbilt.
“Vanderbilt has a lot of connections in the community” said employee Anne Aluknois, who works at a coffee shop in the dining hall’s lower level. “Jobs could be developed on a regular basis, so that if you do well at that particular job every summer at a summer camp [for example], you would go back to the summer camp. That makes Vanderbilt look good in the community, and a dining worker — or five or 10 — goes to work.”
When The City Paper asked Vanderbilt whether the administration would comply with the dining staff’s requests, the university’s communications team quickly emailed a bullet-point “fact sheet” on Vanderbilt’s policy with dining workers.
The fact sheet states that Vanderbilt does not hire dining employees for “full-time, 12-month work.” Instead, it hires “regular” and “partial-year” employees with an understanding between both parties that the job timeframe runs from mid-August through the first week of May. Employment over the summer is offered to “regular” employees only when it arises.
According to university, Vanderbilt Dining “on its own” tries to find job opportunities for employees at local summer camps. Dining workers characterize the level of such attempts — summer work is never guaranteed — as “insulting.”
On the issue of unemployment benefits over the summer, Vanderbilt has the law on its side.
State statute says employees of educational institutions who do not work between academic years are not entitled to unemployment compensation as long as there’s “reasonable assurance” the individual will be retained for the next year. (This same law applies to professors and other university faculty, but they aren’t living below the poverty line.)
“Vanderbilt does not grant or deny any employee unemployment benefits,” Elizabeth Latt, Vanderbilt’s assistant vice chancellor of news and communication, said in a prepared statement. “These are granted to unemployed workers by the Tennessee Department of Labor based on eligibility requirements established by state law.”
Supporters of the dining workers’ cause don’t deny this interpretation of the law. They just have trouble understanding why a university that has such enormous resources — its endowment is $3.4 billion — and which proclaims a commitment to the entire Vanderbilt community won’t be flexible for the lowest paid.
“With dining workers, you have about 200 people living people below the poverty line at one of the richest entities in the country,” said Benjamin Eagles, a 2011 graduate of the school and organizer of OUR Vanderbilt, an organization formed to campaign for “economic justice” on the campus. “At the same place where there 10 people earning above a million dollars, you have people living in extreme poverty. And they’re the people who make the university run day to day.”
Labor at Vanderbilt netted a recent win when the university lifted the salaries of all service workers to $10.78 an hour.
But Vanderbilt professors like Lesley Gill, who chairs the university’s anthropology department, sees a larger theme of labor issues at the school. Clerical workers and administrative assistants have also struggled to find a voice, she said. At a recent Occupy Vanderbilt event that highlighted the concerns of the dining workers, Gill said she witnessed human resources employees monitoring the event.
“I found this just incredibly ironic at a university that prides itself on freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” Gill said. Tenured faculty enjoys those rights, she said, but not the dining workers. “It’s almost like there’s two paralleled universes at Vandy.”
Which goes back to the dining workers’ letter invitation to sit down and dine with Zeppos this summer.
“The chancellor has not received any kind of official invitation,” a Vanderbilt spokeswoman told The City Paper when asked whether Zeppos would take them up on the offer.