The Plight of the HDH Worker


Madeline Park

In light of the recent AFSCME strikes, the poor working conditions of many full-time UC workers have been brought to light. Yet, for many student workers as well, especially those employed by HDH, working conditions have been less than ideal.

With the occurrence of the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees strikes in 2018, all attention was suddenly shifted to an area that has notably received very little before: the UC San Diego service sector. Oftentimes working jobs that cause them to slip further into the background, people in this line of work have dealt with the frustrating combination of being both overlooked and overworked.

Not only have the strikes drawn attention to the plight of the UCSD service workers, but they’ve also thrust those student workers excluded from the general wave of strikes into the spotlight (as the strikes were mainly centered on full-time workers). In fact, although these student workers do not work these jobs full time, it can be said that their working conditions are equally as poor as those of the full-time workers — specifically, for Housing Dining Hospitality workers.

Waking up at around 6:30 a.m., HDH workers begin work earlier than most, preparing the dining halls for opening at 7:30 a.m. Once the food is prepared and set out, tables wiped down, cutlery and sauces restocked, and the workers set in place, the doors are opened to the onslaught of morning crowds who are continuously followed by the waves of lunch and dinner crowds that come in throughout the day. In periods when the crowds are more tempered, workers switch out the food for different meals.

For the typical HDH worker, the days are filled with either the swelling crowds or the slow mind-numbing nothingness of staring at leftover food and slow-moving clocks. The day finally comes to an end a little after 9:00 p.m. when workers must stay afterward to clean up and throw away any extra food that may still be present by the day’s end. For market workers, closing time comes even later, when workers will begin locking doors around 1 a.m. This is all repeated the next day, and the next, and the next, and the next.

In jobs such as these, it is easy for the work to begin to feel monotonous and meaningless. However, what dramatically intensifies the experience is the enormous scale that HDH operates on.  

Serving thousands of people each day while operating 14 dining halls and markets (not to mention the “housing” portion of their jobs), it is often difficult for HDH to keep up with the constant demands of students and faculty, all with a limited number of staff members. The fact that the number of staff members itself is continually fluctuating too — as turnover among HDH student jobs is high — does not help with the overall situation.

Student workers are overworked and underpaid, and often have to compensate for the constant lack of staff.

As a former worker at Pines said, “It’s just really exhausting because you are constantly on your feet and moving. I was just really tired. Every time I would get home my roommate would be like, ‘Are you okay?’ and I would be like, ‘No,’ because I’m just on the floor because I’m too tired to even get up and take a shower. And I smell like dishwater. I would dread work and would have to give myself a pep talk every time I had to go in, because I needed money and I didn’t have time to apply for other jobs.”

According to this anonymous worker, the understaffing problem is probably the most pervasive problem plaguing HDH workers. Because there is not much incentive to work the notorious HDH jobs (due to high stress levels and low pay), students who do work are coerced into working longer hours and more shifts. This leads to the overall exhaustion and mistreatment of current workers, which perpetuates the very ideas that drive students away from working at HDH in the first place, thus ensuring that the staff remains too small. In essence, the whole system is cyclical and in need of major reform.

Jobs such as these, which drain workers of both physical and mental energy, as well as demand large amounts of time fail to compensate their workers properly. Not only are workers only paid minimum wage, but because of the stress, time, and energy that is put into these jobs, workers are often too exhausted to take on other responsibilities such as their schoolwork or involvement with different organizations.

So where can reform begin? Perhaps one way would be to cut directly through the cycle and start with the treatment of its employees. Although they boast a good meal benefits program for their workers, HDH jobs are notorious for their harsh working conditions.  Workers are often herded in and out of shifts quickly and are often forced to pick up longer shifts that go later into the night or begin earlier in the mornings. One worker even commented that no adult worker even seemed to remember her name, despite having worked there for around a year.

Not only are workers treated poorly by their supervisors, but they are also mistreated by fellow students. In fact, it is oftentimes students who are the worst to the student workers, to the point of  not even acknowledging their presence.

“In the training, [HDH] tells you to be nice to the people. I remember one of the things — it was weird — but they said don’t say ‘no problem’ because you can’t treat [customers] like they’re a problem. So we were just trying to value them as an individual person instead of just another person we have to give food to, but a lot of times, if I’d say, ‘Hi,’ or ‘How are you?’ it’s just like nothing. It’s just like, ‘Give me this.’ And sometimes it’s not even, ‘Oh, can I have this please?’ but it’s just pointing,” an anonymous worker said. “We have a meme page and it’s where we vent all of our frustration about stupid customers. It’s very nice. That was a perk actually, because at least I could laugh and relate to that.”

Read more:
The UC’s Quest for Basic Needs
Why HDH Does Not Keep its Promises
AFSCME Strike: What Happens Now?

Understaffing and poor treatment are not the only issues that arise out of HDH’s enormity; there are food handling issues as well. According to a thread on the UCSD Reddit forum, because of HDH’s lack of accountability and monopoly on the dining system at UCSD, it is able to get away with many health-related and environmental “slips.”

In fact, to name a few, both HDH workers and Reddit users have mentioned that not only does HDH not recycle — despite having separate trash bins for recycling and trash and claiming that they do recycle — but there is also a lot of cross-contamination that comes from workers who do not change their gloves when handling food, as well as the fact that all leftover food is thrown away at the end of each day. Such instances can also be attributed to HDH’s enormity, and therefore, lack of attention to detail.

Some students, outraged by these statements, have taken to calling for the privatization of UCSD’s dining system in order to create the healthy competition that would potentially lead to the better treatment of workers, higher quality food, and lower prices.

Others have instead sought to appeal directly to HDH, whether this be in the form of protests or general complaints. This, in turn, has led to occurrences such as the HDH forum that took place last spring or the AFSCME strikes that happened recently (with workers fighting against racial disparities, outsourced labor, and for a pay raise).

Yet, whatever method people choose to help reform the system, it is clear that all are fighting for a common goal. Change within HDH needs to happen, especially when it comes to its workers.

This isn’t to say that HDH is not already working to improve. In fact, it is important to acknowledge the several positive changes have been made within different areas of HDH’s widespread realm. One of the more recent reforms was for the dining plan, which has received an overwhelming amount of criticism from students who complain that it is too expensive. Over the course of the next two years, HDH will begin lowering the prices of the dining hall plans as well as allowing for dining dollars to roll into fall quarter.

However, when it comes to HDH working conditions, change is still a work in progress. Enter Pa Chia Vue, the Undergraduate Student Accounts Analyst for HDH. According to her, change is something that will take time.

“As a staff member who is also an alumna, I know time is something our students don’t always have. There are times when we aren’t able to do things as quickly as we’d like to for students. Some solutions just take time because certain approvals may be required or we may need to reach out to other departments. We do our best to assist them in a timely manner,” Vue said. “Students are our number one priority and their feedback is very important to us. We want them to know that they can always come to us when they’re unhappy so that we can work together to find a solution. We can’t be successful without our students.”

Yes, HDH is not perfect. Yes, it has a bad reputation when it comes to its treatment of workers. However, in order for improvements to be made, both HDH and its workers must be patient and continue to push for progress. These solutions, although seemingly here for a long time, will not come overnight and must be patiently awaited. As long as HDH continues to be receptive toward its customers and students and strives for change, it will move in the right direction. Hopefully, in light of the AFSCME strikes and with the focus now on the workers, more attention and pressure will be placed upon HDH for quicker and better solutions.

Art by Anthony Tran.