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Brandeis catering team speak out about job insecurity

Once the pandemic hit, Brandeis University’s catering team was deemed essential. While most students, faculty and workers headed home in mid-March 2020, three catering supervisors, Kevintz Merisier, Seda Garzaryan and Hugo Mansilla, were asked to produce and deliver food to hospitals as part of the Sodexo Business for three months. 

 

Then it was a year of waiting for catering to come back. 

 

Everything was behind plexiglass, dining halls had to operate under social distancing guidelines and the supervisors were each placed in a cafeteria temporarily until a new “norm” of work was established. 

 

But the “norm” never came. 

 

Before, we were usually having maybe between eight and 15 events a day,” Hugo Mansilla, a Brandeis Dining worker, said. Versus now, they only have an average of three or four events per week, most of which are small jobs like dropping off coffee. “I would say [we’re] a good 90 percent down,” Mansilla continued.

 

Come August 2021, they had only catered for the first week of orientation. The busy hours died down after that. “That’s when I started asking questions,” Merisier said. “Because you said catering was full-fledged. You’re showing us a full binder of events… [Are] legit events and everything else just going down…the drain?”

 

“At first, we didn’t say anything,” Garzaryan explained, thinking the lack of events was a result of COVID-19. “And then we found out when actually we saw the trucks from other companies.” And suddenly, “everything started adding up,” Mansilla said. 

 

They brought the issue up to the dining hall workers’ union. After the union steward read over the contract between Brandeis University and Sodexo Dining again, he found out that the contract did not include a catering section at all. “I got offered to lose my supervisor position and go be a dishwasher if I want[ed] the 40 hours position,” Merisier shared. 

 

In need of the hours, Merisier considered making the switch, but catering is a different skill set. It is exciting. “With catering, our days are never the same, never redundant, ” Merisier explained. He is currently placed in Einstein Bros. Bagels temporarily to earn the full forty hours per week. He serves coffee and bagels for students’ to-go orders. The bagel spot is located at a corner of the first floor of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Campus Center. “I can do a circle, go back, do a circle, go back and do a circle, go back, five days a week,” he said.“[But with] catering, it’s more like today I’m in the Science Center; tomorrow, I’m in the Rose Art Museum; I’m in the theater; I’m at the Mods; I’m at Gosman; I’m in the president’s office.” Catering was a different atmosphere every day, and he missed running up and down the hills, feeling adrenaline rushing through his body. “Ever seen the movie Groundhog Day?” 

 

The three supervisors, Merisier, Garzaryan and Mansilla, joined Brandeis Catering around the same time in 2016. Mansilla arrived on the scene after the catering director at the time convinced him to leave his post at Boston University catering. Garzaryan and Merisier joined a few months later from the same external catering agency. Brandeis was Merisier’s favorite place to work, so he signed up for as many shifts as possible for the two years before joining Brandeis. After proving their capabilities to organize and run events independently, the catering director offered Garzaryan and Merisier full-time positions. “I did not second guess it at all, and it’s been a hell of a run,” Merisier chuckled. 

 

Merisier described Garzaryan as a perfectionist who cares about every minute detail. Since faculty club events are her stronghold, she would come by the events even when the other supervisors were in charge. While asking how the other people on the call are doing, she would slightly adjust the forks and rearrange the napkins. The way she asks, so smoothly, you wouldn’t even notice. For Mansilla, catering was something else. If he had the menu for tomorrow, it should already be the next day in his mind. “He wants to conquer the day,” Merisier noted. As for Merisier, both Garzaryan and Mansilla agreed that he is the most outspoken person of the three. He brought up his suspicions to the dining workers’ union regarding the loss of catering hours right away. “He’s not the only one that feels that way, you know, we all feel the same. He[’s] just a little more courageous,” Garzaryan added.  

 

Garzaryan, Mansilla and Merisier have been working as a team at Brandeis for five years. “It’s the strongest team I’ve had since I’ve been catering,” Garzaryan said. She recounted proudly an event they catered. Around 9 a.m. on the day of the event, she explained, the event organizer called asking where the food for 450 people was. “And we’re like, what? We don’t have it.” It turned out the scheduled event never reached their information system. But “we didn’t panic. We didn’t, like, start complaining… we just said what was it? Where and what?” Mansilla chimed in. They ran to Usdan and started to prepare the food. By the time the clock clicked at 9:45 a.m., they had all of the tables set up with brewed coffee, bagels, cream cheese, and even a kosher pastry table. “At the end, we were all congratulating each other, really happy. We made it happen all together!” Mansilla said.

 

“We do love the job. But right now, we all have families. We all have bills to pay,” Mansilla said. “We could apply for a different position and make less money,” he explained, “but that’s not what we came here for.” Garzaryan is now confronted with the question of where to go next. As one of the Brandeis dining staff who has worked here the longest, she trained other dining hall supervisors in their current jobs because she knows how to run all of the locations. “Now we’re training people to take over dining hall supervisors, so what’s gonna happen to me?” Garzaryan asked. “I don’t want to think about it, but we have to.”

 

The Director of University Services Jeffrey Hershberger listed the reason of excluding catering team from the contract to a student organizer in a email on Dec. 2: “the impetus to drop the exclusivity requirement for this year and last was to address stated desires and concerns of student and staff to have more freedom of choice in catering events.” However, the information was never conveyed directly toward the catering supervisors. “We can do essentially what other catering companies do,” Mansilla shared that they always have good relationships with their clients and are happy to help if clients want additional food from external vendors. 

 

As the Director of University Services listed in his email: “the opportunity for change is in developing the new contract which will commence on July 1, 2022.” The catering supervisors are hoping to call for more students’ help on petition before renewing the contract.

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