Photo Courtesy of Yana Levy
After initial positive reviews about the College’s new partnership with AVI Foodsystems, many student workers are reporting internal disorganization, long hours with no breaks, and stringent corporate policies. AVI denies many of the allegations and states that they provide a nurturing workplace.
Before the College switched dining providers to AVI, students were only permitted to work a maximum of 10 hours a week to ensure a healthy school-work balance under Bon Appétit Management Company. Now, AVI requires incoming student workers to work either three shifts or 12 hours per week. Some students, especially low-income students, work much more than that.
College second-year Saffron Forsberg chose to work 20–22 hour weeks while also taking classes. However, in an initial email from AVI she was asked to work double her current hours.
“[AVI] asked me to work 40 hours off the bat in an email,” Forsberg said. “I had to send them a response explaining why I couldn’t work 40 hours.”
Forsberg didn’t take on a 40-hour week, but she’s not the only student whose work hours far exceed the 12-hour minimum. Still, AVI maintains that students are generally asked to commit to approximately 9-12 hours per week.
“We ask that students either work three shifts or 12 hours,” wrote Resident Director Caleb Crandall in an email to the Review. “If the three shifts they have opted to work are three hours each, then they have met a requirement, which is less than 12 hours. If they opt to work two six-hour shifts, then they have met the 12-hour requirement.
Many student workers report that AVI mandates a strict and often inflexible leave policy. Forsberg says workers must call at least two hours ahead of time if they need to miss a shift for any reason — including medical emergencies. Even if the student called two hours ahead of time or expressed a legitimate need to take time off, they receive a written disciplinary action notice, which students say they have to sign, acknowledging wrongdoing.
“[Getting] off time when you’re sick or stressed is really hard,” Forsberg said. “One time I was going through a really hard time, I was really, really sick and I called — they have a policy … two hours before your shift, you have to call in — I called him an hour and 55 minutes before and they reported me and my manager was like, ‘You could get fired.’”
Crandall says the leave policy includes zero-tolerance for no-call or no-shows, and that if a team member requires a day off, they must request it 10 days in advance so a replacement can be found. If someone unexpectedly needs time off, they must call in at least two hours ahead of time.
“If a team member is scheduled to work Thursday at 5 p.m. and calls off that day, then yes it is documented and the attendance policy is referenced when discussing the corrective action with the team member,” Crandall wrote. “Our goal is never to lose team members. Our goal is to help teach young adults and get them ready for life after Oberlin.”
The fear of being fired is overwhelming for many student workers, as they report a constant threat of termination by supervisors.
“Talking to my coworkers recently, most people I know are constantly terrified of being fired,” Forsberg said. “Any time you take off you have to sign a form called a corrective form saying that you know what you did was wrong and you won’t do it again.”
However, Crandall argues that the policy is not meant to make students feel afraid or stressed. Instead, the policy is aimed at keeping dining locations running smoothly while ensuring a positive relationship between employees and managers.
“We aren’t in this business to make anyone unhappy or upset, especially our team members,” he wrote. “We understand that life happens and if a student was truly unable to contact us, then we talk with said student to better understand what happened. The goal is to always learn from an experience and if that results in a student retaining employment, then it is a win-win all around.”
Students also describe a hostile environment when it comes to taking breaks, saying that, although AVI claims that all employees are entitled to breaks during their shift, this policy is often not honored. College second-year Izzy Sanchez-Foster and College first-year Kabir Sethi both said that during the dinner rush, which often constitutes a majority of their shift, they are not allowed to take breaks.
“If you’re working a shift, you’re allowed to take a 10 minute break, but that’s all you get where you eat,” Sethi said. “Sometimes you barely get to eat anything. And sometimes you can’t even take a break. This dinner service gets so intense. And then the managers were like, ‘Let’s just cut the breaks entirely.”
According to College second-year Saint Franqui, some students are not informed that they are allowed breaks, have to argue with managers to be allowed to go on break, or are not allowed to take a break. Some students reported that workers are required to clock out during their breaks as well as to go to the bathroom, and they are constantly reminded that they are stealing company time if they fail to do so — a fireable offense.
According to Ohio labor law, companies are not required to give employees breaks, but since AVI voluntarily provided breaks to staff, it is legally required to pay employees for breaks shorter than 20 minutes, including bathroom breaks.
These stringent break policies are especially problematic for workers with health challenges. Until last month, Franqui worked nine hours per week at DeCafé. After experiencing health issues, including passing out, he asked to be put on a job where he could sit down. Instead, managers pressured him to stock the shelves. He quit.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are not required to provide accommodations to employees unless they have submitted documentation of a disability.
Understaffing is also a chronic issue facing workers. With insufficient staffing, many students are asked to take extra shifts and work overtime. Often, students feel pressured or guilted into taking on jobs that they have not been trained for.
“I work 20–22 hours, but sometimes they have me stay a little longer,” said Forsberg. “I’ll tell [my manager] I’m off my shift, and he’ll kind of argue with me about that.”
According to Sanchez-Foster, there aren’t enough staff members to complete tasks such as cleaning dishes, resulting in incomplete work.
“There are so many dishes to do and so little staffing that you don’t have time to scrub everything down, you just kind of dunk it in the soapy water, dunk it in the sanitizer, dunk it in the rinse, and hope that it’s clean,” Sanchez-Foster said.
A lack of training also further complicates students’ ability to complete their jobs or understand what is expected of them.
“They didn’t explain the various hazards that could come with working with the [dish] machine,” Sethi said. “And maybe it isn’t my job to do that, but there are days where we’re so short-staffed that I have to do it anyway.”
Under the previous dining vendor, Bon Appétit, students received on-the-job training, for which they were paid. AVI conducts paid in-person training where new staff members shadow more experienced staff members as they complete their jobs. However, many students feel that the training they receive is not sufficient enough to allow them to operate complex and potentially dangerous machinery.
“[Students will] get their training, they’ll know generic, basic stuff,” Sethi said. “But when they actually have to put the pedal to the metal, it is so intense because you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re really disoriented. … It’s like you’re just thrown into the deep end.”
The lack of proper training is a major safety concern for staff. According to Sethi, he nearly burned his eyes using a dishwasher because he hadn’t been instructed on how to safely operate it.
However, AVI maintains that it provides sufficient training and a safe working environment that helps prepare students for their life after Oberlin.
“Having students work a set schedule allows our team members to become more educated in the business, be held accountable, and get ready for responsibilities asked of them from a job in their field when they graduate and move on from Oberlin,” Crandall wrote.
According to some student workers, AVI has been successful in fostering a nurturing environment. Daniel Fleischer, OC ’21, had a positive, affirming experience working at Biggs GoYeo in spring 2021.
“I thought the pay was great, and I loved my coworkers and boss,” Fleischer wrote in a statement to the Review. “My boss got to really focus on training me well. Biggs has a small team so we got to all bond with each other, and the older staff members got all of the graduating seniors really sweet good-bye gifts at the end of the year, which just made me feel so loved and appreciated.”