College struggles to fill low-wage dining and facilities positions

Middlebury’s lowest pay-band positions do not start at a livable wage — and some have remained open for months. This hiring effort comes amid a national debate over unemployment benefits.

By Ideal Dowling

Van Barth
Ross Dining Hall has had two open positions for several months without any applicants.

The college is struggling to fill low-wage positions in Dining and Facilities Services — a task many employers have faced this year, sparking a national debate over hiring difficulties and its alleged relation to unemployment benefits. The challenges follow more than a year after student-organized protests for higher staff wages, calls from faculty to address wage compression and requests for higher prioritization of staff needs in budget planning.

Positions in the skilled trades areas of Facilities Services have been open for anywhere between one to six months without attracting qualified candidates, according to Director of Facilities Services Mike Moser. 

Likewise, Executive Director of Food Service Operations Dan Detora told The Campus that, despite having seven openings in the department for most of the semester, there have been only one or two applicants at any given time.

Ross Dining Hall currently has two open cook jobs, one of which has been empty since August 2020 and the other since January 2021. Atwater Dining Hall has been looking to hire a line cook for a few weeks without a single interested applicant, according to Ian Martin, Atwater Commons chef manager.

“This is kind of unusual. There have been times we’ve gotten a few applicants and they’re not qualified, and other times we get a lot of applicants, but this time there’s really been no applicants at all for this duration,” said Chris Laframboise, Ross Commons chef manager.

Much of the speculation over why hiring has been challenging for the college, as well as for local and national businesses, involves a debate over whether unemployment benefits, bolstered by federal pandemic relief funds, are to blame — or whether wages were substandard to begin with.

The college’s lowest paid employees earn less than the livable wage in Vermont. The minimum hourly rates in the Operations Level 1, 2 and 3 (OP1, OP2 and OP3) bands are  $14, $15 and $16 respectively. The Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office found that the 2020 livable wage for a single person without children was $15.72 per hour, more than the starting wages for OP1 and OP2. A 2020 study by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition set the Addison County two-bedroom housing wage at $20.40 per hour, higher than ten of the hourly rates offered by Middlebury. 

Many of the current open positions are those that offer wages slightly above the liveable wage. The line cook position in Atwater Dining Hall and the cook positions in Ross Dining Hall are all benefits eligible and in the OP3 band, which offers a minimum, or starting, hourly rate of $16.00 — just $0.28/hr above the liveable wage. For a single parent with one or two children, the rate falls well below the liveable wage for rural Vermont, which is $26.43 and $33.75 respectively.

In Vermont, those eligible for unemployment can receive between $191 and $513 per week, depending on eligibility. Currently, this sum is supplemented by the $300 federal weekly benefit as part of the American Rescue Plan.

The open cook positions entail a 40 hour work week. Factoring in shift differentials, which are hourly wage supplements for time worked between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., the total weekly wage for the position ranges from $647.50 to $648.25 depending whether the cook works the first or second shift. In either situation, the weekly wage is significantly less than the maximum unemployment amount available of $813 per week. 

In a statement to The Campus, Assistant Vice President of Human Resources Laura Carotenuto cited enhanced unemployment benefits as a significant factor contributing to the difficulties the college has faced trying to fill positions.

 “The challenge to fill open positions is one that is being experienced by employers across Vermont and nationally… Recent unemployment incentives have had an impact on application rates, further complicating those challenges. As the State moves to reinstate the requirement to seek employment in order to receive unemployment benefits, it is our hope that the situation may improve,” Carotenuto said in an email to The Campus.

Beginning May 9, Vermont reinstated the Work Search requirement for unemployment benefits, which obligates claimants to submit proof of conducting three job contacts or activities each week while collecting benefits and to accept any work that is offered to them.

Vermont is not the only state planning to alter unemployment programs — many Republican-led states, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming, are looking to cut the American Rescue Plan’s $300 federal supplement to weekly unemployment benefits before the planned Sept. 6 end date in an effort to incentivize returning to low-wage work. 

On a national scale, Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell support the argument that ARP’s unemployment benefits are to blame for the current stagnation in the labor market, Democratic leaders have countered that the hiring difficulties most likely arise from low wages, the continuing struggle to find childcare and persisting health and safety concerns.

 At Middlebury, the ability to advance to the mid-point or maximum hourly rate for a given pay band depends on “historical factors such as previous experience, education, length of employment at Middlebury/MIIS, performance over time, career moves, etc.,” according to the college’s Human Resources webpage. There is no set timeline that allows staff members to anticipate a raise.

 For those with children, returning to work first necessitates finding acceptable and affordable childcare services. In Vermont, the child care sector is notoriously underfunded, and most families can ill-afford their tuition payments, even while most child care workers subsist on poverty wages, according to a VTDigger interview with Sarah Kenney, chief policy officer for the child care advocacy program Let’s Grow Kids. According to the group’s website, 62% of children who need childcare in Vermont don’t have access to any regulated program.

Fears about the virus and safety concerns also remain as major constraints on returning to in-person work. 

Local businesses are facing similar difficulty finding candidates. Mister Up’s, for example, has only been able to fill two of the 10 positions that have been open since February. Rosie’s restaurant has had waitress, server, dishwashing and cooking positions open for a couple months, according to General Manager Ron Sunderland.

As positions at the college remain unfilled, those that have stayed at their posts are working even harder for the same wage. Empty positions result in more pressure on the teams that are in place, as existing staff must absorb the extra workload.

 “Being down two cooks is one less on each shift, which ultimately means more work gets put on the other cooks, which tends to burn them out faster,” Laframboise said. 

As the academic year comes to a close, Laframboise’s focus is turned toward filling the empty positions on time for fall 2021, when dining shifts from its scaled-down Covid-19 operations back to offering full menus for a greater number of students.

“Next semester we should be getting those students [who deferred] back plus all the other students. We are going to be very busy and need these cooks,” he said.