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All dining employees will be required to wear masks and gloves when operations resume in the fall. Credit: Mona Lee

Although Penn announced last month that its campus will open to students and faculty in fall 2020, Bon Appétit workers, who staff Penn’s retail dining locations and Falk Dining Commons, have not yet been informed of the decision after months of silence from their employer.

“Who wants to work for some sort of employer like that? I know I don’t no more, but if you have no choice you will work there because you have to bite the bullet,” Falk Dining Commons chef Troy Harris said. “Penn, as a well-known Ivy League institution, should not be doing business with people not taking care of their workers.” 

Penn’s University-wide June 25 announcement about the fall semester read that on-campus dining halls will operate with a focus on take-out and pre-packaged meals, prohibiting self-serve options such as salad bars. All regular full-time dining staff, both those employed by Penn and those employed by Bon Appétit, are expected to return to campus dining in the fall, Director of Hospitality Services Pam Lampitt wrote in a July 2 emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Bon Appétit employees, however, said they have neither heard from Bon Appétit since mid-March nor been informed of plans for fall dining operations. 

As the silence from Bon Appétit drags on, some of its employees have already started looking for other jobs. Employees are also worried that even if their jobs are secure, they will not be sufficiently protected from the coronavirus in the fall. Cases of COVID-19 among young Philadelphians have continued to rise over the last four weeks. 

“They gonna lose a lot of workers now because people got their back against the wall — some people not getting unemployment — so if they find another job that’s making a penny more than that, they not gonna go back because they feel like Bon Appétit gives a bunch of crap,” Harris said.

Harris said that his son, who works at Houston Hall, plans to start a new job if he does not hear from Bon Appétit within a few weeks. 

Many employees said they do not feel a sense of loyalty to Bon Appétit. 

After students were forced to leave campus in mid-March, Bon Appétit laid off approximately 140 workers without pay. Following widespread backlash and a student-initiated petition demanding compensation for Bon Appétit-hired dining workers, the University paid laid-off staff employed by Bon Appétit through May 15. Bon Appétit typically lays off approximately 70% of its staff for the duration of the summer.

“I still feel bad they kicked us out like that we don’t have no income or nothing,” Harris said. “If it wasn’t for Penn helping us through the last couple of checks, I think I would have been homeless through that.” 

Employees’ lingering feelings of animosity towards Bon Appétit have only intensified the staff’s concerns about returning to work, adding to their worries about staying safe during the raging coronavirus pandemic.

All dining employees will be required to wear masks and gloves and, in some cases, staff will work behind a partition to separate them from students, Lampitt wrote to the DP.

Falk Dining Commons chef Kareem Wallace, who has worked at Falk Dining Commons for 17 years, said he is prepared to quit his work at Penn for the sake of his family's safety if he feels that the implemented regulations are not protective enough. 

“My life nor any other employee's life is not valued to [Bon Appétit],” Wallace said. “I just think it’s a whole set-up for more people to die, and I’m not comfortable with that outcome.” 

Falk Dining Commons chef Elijah Wingate, who has been a cook at Falk Dining Commons for 20 years, said his biggest fear is bringing the virus home, where his wife and two-year-old grandchild live. Wingate has not yet decided if he will return to work in the fall. 

Bon Appétit employees are also worried about how the new takeout-only system will impact regular operations.

Harris said he thinks making the pre-packaged meals will be time-consuming, and that it is unlikely Bon Appétit will hire more employees to help with the increased workload.

“They rather see us run ourselves down to the mud than we be penalized for calling out,” Harris said. “They put so much work on you then they start throwing the book on you. You get written up for this, stop being late, but we keep telling them we need help.”

Wingate said he is concerned that the pre-packaged model will require fewer employees, causing staff layoffs.

For now, employees said they are anxiously awaiting direct news from Bon Appétit so they can either prepare for the fall or begin looking for new jobs if they feel the new regulations will not protect them from the coronavirus. 

“It’s kind of disheartening because you actually don’t know, ” Wingate said. "You don’t want to wait [until] August come around and find out they’ll be changes when no one kept us up to date on anything."