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Dining halls face staff shortage with start of in-person semester

<h5>The Mathey College dining hall.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The Mathey College dining hall. 
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

The Butler-First dining hall saw a staggering 1,500 students during lunch on Sept. 8. According to a staff member interviewed by The Daily Princetonian, there were only 20–25 staff members working that shift.

“We’re trying our best to keep our composure,” said one staff member as the staff in the residential college dining halls, operating at full capacity this fall, are bearing the brunt of the recent worker shortage. Several Campus Dining staff members were granted anonymity throughout this story. 

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There was “not enough to keep up,” they said. “It does feel a lot busier for us here.” 

According to the interviewee, the Butler-First dining hall also lost several temporary workers in the week dating from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5. 

“It was just too much, it was too overwhelming, so they left and went somewhere else,” they said.

In response to an inquiry from the ‘Prince,’ Ayana Okoya, the University’s Media Relations Specialist, wrote that Campus Dining is actively seeking to address staffing issues.

“Like many employers, Campus Dining is dealing with staffing challenges as it ramps up service to normal levels for the first time since March 2020 due to COVID-19,” she wrote.

“Campus Dining is actively recruiting professional staff and rebuilding its student workforce, including partnering with Human Resources to host a job fair this week and recruiting student staff at the fall Activities Fair,” Okoya added.

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Twenty-four job openings within Campus Dining are presently listed on the University’s human resources website, and the job fair will be held on Sept. 22. The University is also attempting to minimize impacts on services by offering overtime to employees to help fill staffing gaps, according to Okoya.

A staff member in the Whitman College dining hall who spoke with the ‘Prince’ also observed a larger volume of students coming in for meals than they are used to, adding to the feelings of being overwhelmed. 

“We’re doing 433 for breakfast, it used to be like 250 to 280 at the most. For lunch, we’re doing on average between 580–680 when it used to be 500 at the most,” the staff member said in an interview. They added that the dinner crowd averages around 700, when in past years it “used to be around 500 to 550.”

According to Okoya, these early-semester fluctuations are typical.

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“Guest counts in the residential dining halls are consistent with the previous years and stabilize around October,” she wrote. “We appreciate the patience of our students and the hard work of our staff through these busy days.”

For the Butler-First employee, however, the mounting work resulting from staff shortages is unsustainable. 

“You’ll hear from a lot of the staff that it’s too much for everybody. In the kitchen, you’re feeding thousands of people, but you only have two to three cooks … it’s overwhelming how much work there is,” they said. 

They added that Butler College dining “just wants to add more things to the menus.” 

“They’re pushing for a lot of different food options — like for the grill, we have simply cheesesteaks, hotdogs, hamburgers, and fries. Now they want us to do grilled cheese, and that’s cooked to order. Or quesadillas, which have been killing us … we have to make four to five hundred just for dinner, with just a few hours to do that, on top of everything else,” they described. 

“We just can’t do it as people. We should be keeping it simple, if possible, with variety. But they just want to add more probably because we’re opening up for the first time in two years and not just doing boxed lunches,” they added. 

A Forbes staff member told the ‘Prince’ that in their multiple years working in that residential college’s dining hall, they have “never seen anything like this.” 

They are hopeful that the return of student dining hall workers will help.

“We would have students working in the first week of school. Even on Sundays we’d have four or five people. Now we have two.”

Similarly, the Butler-First employee thinks that student employment “will help us, especially in the night.”

But while Okoya noted that Campus Dining is actively hiring, the Butler-First employee expressed their frustration with the time it is taking.

“We found a couple more temps, but I feel we should be still bringing in more,” they said. 

For students, the staffing shortages have resulted in some temporary changes in the dining hall experience.

Belinda Wu ’25, a student in First College, told the ‘Prince,’ “It was weird to walk into the dining halls, sometimes there were paper plates and sometimes there would be regular plates.”

“I still went wherever was convenient,” she added. 

For the Butler-First employee, the past few weeks have been stressful, but they noted that they are not alone. 

“At first, I thought it was just me, being overwhelmed just coming back to work, but hearing everybody else, you realize it’s not just you; it’s everybody here. And it’s probably for the managers too,” they said. 

“Change needs to happen, and soon.” 

Sandeep Mangat is a staff writer who frequently covers the University administration and campus events. He can be reached at smangat@princeton.edu and on Twitter @s_smangat.

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