When you walk into Falk Dining Commons — one of the top-rated dining halls on campus — you’ll be greeted at the buffet by Kareem Wallace, arms outstretched in his signature greeting from behind the glass panel. At his side, Troy Harris looks up from the grill, cocks his head and asks, “Hey, how you feelin’ today?” Troy and Kareem have worked in food service at Penn for 13 and eight years, respectively — they know the students in this dining hall well. During off hours and on weekends, Troy, a father of six, supplements his full-time Bon Appétit salary by cleaning students’ houses and catering for fraternities. Kareem holds a second job at a restaurant in order to provide for his two children.
Still, at the end of an incredibly long and tiring work week, these Bon Appétit employees go home without enough money to support their families.
At $12.95 an hour, Troy’s pay from Bon Appétit falls well below the living wage in Philadelphia, as calculated by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This calculation considers monthly expenses, such as food, childcare and transportation, in order to determine the hourly wages necessary to live and support a family in a given U.S. city.
These wages are not merely low. They are unjustly lower than the wages of other dining workers on campus. Bon Appétit workers receive far lower wages than dining workers who are directly employed by Penn. If Troy were directly employed by the University, such as the workers at 1920 Commons, for example, his wages would shoot up to $17.05 per hour. Similarly, Kareem’s hourly wages would change from the $10.81 he currently makes to $15.85. Additionally, Troy and Kareem would receive one paid sick leave day per month, instead of the meager three sick days per year that they have now, a policy that forces workers to choose between staying home to recover from illness and putting food on the table.
Although Bon Appétit markets itself to students as a sustainable food provider, their policy behind closed doors suggests otherwise. The walls of Falk Dining Commons are adorned with framed posters that read, “Making conscious food choices.” We, students at the University of Pennsylvania, ask: How can Bon Appétit claim sustainability when the wages it pays are not enough for its workers to sustain their families? How can we, in good conscience, actually believe that we are “making conscious food choices” when we swipe into Bon Appétit’s dining halls?
After years of seeing only pennies in raises yet remaining silent for fear of losing their jobs, Bon Appétit workers are demanding answers to these questions. Troy and Kareem are not alone — they are simply members of a growing workers’ committee that, in alliance with Penn Student Labor Action Project, has been building power over the past year. They have launched a campaign, Justice on the Menu, for higher wages and paid sick leave to match the salary and sick policy offered to Bon Appétit workers who are directly employed by Penn.
In the words of Troy, “It’s time for us to be heard. I’ve been working a long time, and my kids are growing. I work at an Ivy League university, and I’ve invested so much here. I want my kids to have a chance at actually being a student here someday. The only way I can make that happen is if I start getting fair wages.”
Yesterday, the workers’ committee made their campaign public to the National Labor Relations Board and Bon Appétit at Penn. Thursday, the committee will go public to the entire university with a rally at College Green at 11:45 a.m. Show your support by coming to hear workers speak and raise your voice in unison with them to demand, “Bon Appétit: Put worker justice on the menu!”
The Penn Students Labor Action Project supports economic justice by linking campus and community organizing and developing campaigns that win concrete victories for working folks.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.