Chartwells cuts employee hours, available vacation days

Names used to refer to service workers were changed to protect their identities.

According to their contract with Chartwells, service workers are not allowed to request vacation time during “blocked out weeks.” In previous years, that only referred to commencement week, employees told The Tartan. But last week, workers received news about sweeping changes to next year’s vacation time. In a calendar sent to employees, not a single day was marked “open for vacation” from August 14 to October 31. Over the 181 days that follow, only 42 percent are “open.”

“I’m over it,” said Taylor, an employee who has spent a decade with Carnegie Mellon Dining Services. The worker had a list of complaints against Chartwells, and it was growing by the week. There was the coworker who lost an expensive pair of earrings after studs were abruptly banned. There were the suggestions of a rule about tattoos, which the employee saw as “flat-out discrimination.” And there was the reduction in hours, from 40 to 37.5, that caused at least two employees to consider quitting. Chartwells did not provide responses to questions by The Tartan regarding these changes.

Most employees have maintained 40-hour work weeks during the years with the university. But because only 37.5 hours are required to be a full-time employee, Chartwells recently slashed employees’ schedules by half an hour each day. Less work means less pay, which can be difficult to afford. The starting wage for Chartwells counter workers is $16.98 per hour.

Chartwells also cut workers’ weekly hours to 37.5 at Northeastern University. On April 16, students rallied to support dining employees. In the days leading up to the event, the university power washed announcements made in sidewalk chalk.

At Carnegie Mellon, workers need approval from their manager to work more than the amount for which they are scheduled. If they clock out three minutes late, they risk receiving half a point. Seven points justify grounds for termination, according to Chartwells’ handbook. Employees are also docked points for sick days. One point for one sick day, two points for two, one point for three. Not only does this penalize workers for being ill, it also encourages them to take the third day off—otherwise they’ll receive an extra point, one employee explained to The Tartan.

All of these frustrations built in the weeks leading up to the vacation announcement, which was sent on April 8. This was a violation of the employees’ contract, which was reviewed by The Tartan. The window for service workers to request their vacation days was set to begin April 1, but more than a third of their decision time was cut. After the first letters arrived on April 11, word spread quickly among employees, some of whom didn’t receive their envelope until April 13. Request approvals are partially based on the order in which they are received, putting workers who got the letter late at a disadvantage.

Employees are granted two weeks of paid vacation days after a year with Carnegie Mellon Dining Services, three weeks after five years of service, and four weeks after 15. Vacation time does not roll over across years; if it is not used in a given year, it expires. But with fewer opportunities for vacation days, it is likely that coworkers will be competing for the same time off. Taylor said they wouldn’t be surprised if Chartwells denies workers their requests, leaving them with fewer vacation days by the end of the year.

The change is especially difficult for employees with children. Alex, whose kids’ birthdays fall during blocked-off months, was nonplussed by Chartwells’ decision. “They can say whatever they want. My sons come first.”

The tighter rules are a response to Chartwells’ low return rate. “If they’re losing money … that’s not your employees’ problem. That’s your problem,” Taylor told The Tartan. They explained that most employee suggestions about food changes have been shut down by upper-management. “There ain’t shit for yinz to eat. No wonder [Chartwells is] losing business.... They’re losing money, so now they’re gonna mess with our pockets like it’s our fault.”

Since Taylor began working at Carnegie Mellon, the jewelry rules made sense to them. But this spring, management began “making everybody go around and take their earrings out. … Poof, you lost an expensive set of earrings because they had them do that.” Taylor supports rules about bracelets, dangling earrings, and nail polish, which can fall into the food. “If I have my ears dangling over food then maybe I shouldn’t be a cook, you know what I mean?” They also understood limits on nose, lip, and eyebrow piercings. But saying no to studs? “It’s ridiculous, what they’re coming up with.”

Over spring break, workers were called in for a mandatory, four-hour training meeting. “Most of the stuff didn’t pertain to us,” Taylor recalled. “A lot of it was stuff … they teach nurses, like blood-borne pathogens, hepatitis … more about drawing blood or something.”

Some of the speakers shared information that was both helpful and relevant to workers, including breast cancer awareness and customer service training. Mostly, though, employees wondered why they were still at work. Taylor felt that the time could have been better spent asking employees what changes they’d like to see at their stations.

“We had three different meetings about the whole blood borne pathogens n’at,” Taylor said. “They had to pay us automatic four hours for being here, so they were just going on about anything to get their money’s worth. … That stuff, by the way, is supposed to be done at the beginning of the school year.” After information was repeated a third time around, Taylor was left thinking: “Yinz are really milking that crop.”

One of the aspects of the meeting Taylor was most dubious about was a raffle at the end. Chartwells halved employees’ vacation days this year (January 2020 - January 2021), because workers were furloughed during the pandemic. Since they only worked half the year, senior management in turn decided to halve their paid leave. At the meeting over spring break, Chartwells raffled off two vacation days. “I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me. Oh, y’all’s trying to give back the vacation days y’all took.’”

When Chartwells came to Carnegie Mellon in 2019, many service workers were hopeful. The previous dining management company, CulinArt, doled out low wages and was slow to field employee feedback. Yet when it was replaced by Chartwells, Taylor was reminded to “watch what you wish for. … Boy do we have appreciation for CulinArt now.”

A service worker passing by overheard Taylor’s comment and called out, “I knew what was coming.” Every three years, Carnegie Mellon decides to either continue their dining partnership or choose a new company. Service workers are not consulted during this process.