Students may have an easier time finding a meal on central campus with the reopening of Café 65 in the University Center — but the cafeteria’s return after a two-year closure has increased the strain on an already-stretched dining workforce.
Staffing is the primary concern for Dining and Hospitality this semester in an ongoing saga that has worsened since the spring semester. The department has 17 vacant positions, which means they are operating with just 64% of the necessary employees, according to Alfonso Quinones, director of Dining and Hospitality.
Larry Lee, executive director of auxiliary services, said operating with less staff is a post-COVID-19 “operational reality” that the service industry will have to adapt to. “We have to learn how to do the same, if not more work with less people,” he said.
Café 65 is open with just two stations for breakfast and lunch, short of pre-pandemic operations. Dwire and the Lodge are open all day during the week and the Roaring Fork is open on the weekends — but dining hall hours are subject to change at the liberty of the workers, who are already working overtime to keep things open.
Dining employees getting sick or calling off work has the potential to shut down an entire dining hall — a reality students have already felt with the Lodge closing for dinner more than once since classes began last month.
“It’s a struggle to put out a meal,” Quinones said.
Staffing shortages have been an ongoing issue across campus since campus reopened after the start of the pandemic. Still, dining services have never been stretched this thin before, according to assistant director Heath Wagner. “Café 65 open has made it way more challenging,” he said, explaining that Dining and Hospitality better distributed their limited resources with fewer open dining halls.
“We opened [Café 65] because we had pressure from the university to open,” Quinones said. “What we did is we moved staff from other stations, from other dining halls so we have not acquired new staff yet.”
Limiting hours allows staff to move from one dining hall to another to keep up with demand. For example, the coffee shop in Dwire is open from 7-11 a.m. at their busiest times, then employees close and transition into University Center Café 65.
Lee said reopening Café 65 was the right thing to do for students. “It’s game time,” he said. “Students are excited to be back.”
Despite planning to operate with fewer employees, Dining and Hospitality is recruiting both student and professional employees. Student workers got a wage increase to $14 in July, up from $12.95. However, Quinones said the higher wages have not attracted new student employees. For example, the catering team typically has 25 student employees; this semester, they have just six.
Historically, 80% of the dining workforce has consisted of students, but academics can create scheduling challenges. Quinones said students want to work at night after class, but the dining halls need workers during the day.
Dining and Hospitality leadership wants to flip the ratio and employ more professional staff than students — but they can’t find people to hire. “There’s just no people available. They’re just not there,” Quinones said.
Employment on campus reflects a nationwide labor shortage that has plagued the food industry since 2020. Despite the unemployment decline, restaurants and the food industry continue to have some of the highest numbers of job openings across all industries, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Quinones understands that some students may seek out employment with more competitive wages and perks. As an example, UCCS’ recent partnership with Amazon allows employees to get their tuition paid in full; Dining and Hospitality do not offer an equivalent benefit.
Since joining the university community six months ago, Lee recognizes UCCS to be ahead of other universities’ dining. However, he remains committed to long-term plans that include rewards programs, renovations and introducing well-known brand chains to campus.
Wagner said the immediate goal is to hire more employees and retain the present workforce. Dining services has open positions for cooks, student staff, servers and material handlers on SEAN. Long-term goals include a continued commitment to sustainability and advertising meal plans to commuters, faculty and staff.
“The most frustrating part about this is that our progress is very slow because we just cannot accomplish what we want to accomplish because this just doesn’t move; that’s the most painful part. You get a little bit of progress, but it goes very bad or very wrong because you don’t have the resources,” Quinones said.
“We want students to come here and be happy.”
Photo caption: Café 65 reopens on campus, worsening shortages within dining services. Photo by Taylor Villalpando.