MILWAUKEE - The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is defending its plan to ask faculty and staff to volunteer and fill staffing holes in residential dining halls.
On Friday, Sept. 2, university administrators emailed faculty and staff announcing the new "Anytime Dining Plan" which provides students an opportunity to eat as often as they'd like at any of the three on-campus dining halls. UWM touted the plan, the first new option in 25 years, as a means to end food insecurity for students.
Then the email transitioned to a call for help.
"Residential Dining is asking for your help by donating any time you can find to prepare, serve and support the dining experience in the UWM residence halls," it read.
The email told instructors they would not receive overtime pay for pitching in.
That caught the attention of the American Federation of Teachers Local 3535, which is the union representing faculty and staff at both UWM and UW-Parkside.
Local 3535 President Eric Lohman told FOX6 on Sunday the effort was "insulting," especially during a weekend dedicated to labor.
"Rather than figuring out a way to hire more workers to fill those roles, they simply asked us to do it for free without overtime pay," Lohman said. "I was livid about it."
On Monday, a statement from a university spokeswoman said UWM has struggled to hire students as on-campus dining operations employees since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, UWM retained around 80% of student employees for the following year, but now, Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Johnson said that statistic has flipped. The dining program needs about 180 student workers not yet hired.
"Since COVID, we’ve had about 20% return each year, which means each fall (2020, 2021 and 2022), we’ve had to hire 80% or more," Johnson said. "This takes time to do, as many students don’t think about applying for a campus job until they are on campus in the fall."
Johnson added the school shifted dining operations employees in each of the last two school years to address the problem because some of the university's locations had reduced hours or services.
This year, every location is open, hence the call to other departments, Johnson said.
"It is important to recognize that volunteers from other departments are temporarily doing the work of student workers, such as busing tables, while we are in the process of hiring more student employees," Johnson said. "They are not replacements for full-time or student workers or doing the work of skilled chefs."
Despite the call for help, Johnson said the university does have enough full-time employees to feed the student body. She said those who volunteer will help by restocking and serving food and supporting full-time staff in other ways so they can focus on the student experience.
"It’s not uncommon at UWM to have employees temporarily help in another unit, such as happens each year with move-in. This is merely another facet of that," Johnson said.
Joan Nesbitt, the university's vice chancellor for advancement, spent four hours of her day on Tuesday at the salad preparation station inside Sandburg Cafe. With a plastic apron, a sharp knife and a positive attitude, she said she just wanted to help.
"I've never cut so many pineapples in my life," said Nesbitt. "The way I look at it, this is just another way for me to get to know people and see the facilities."
Nolan Davis, the executive director of Student Services and Life said UWM has asked for this type of help in dining halls the last two years because of COVID. The only difference this time is that it was sent through email.
"The challenge we're having now is getting started," said Davis.
Davis said he doesn't think pay is an issue. Starting wages in the dining hall were bumped to $11 an hour in January.
He expects the problem to be alleviated after a part-time job fair for students on Sept. 22.