Universities are struggling to hire staff as millions of students return to campus for the fall semester, with campus dining halls acutely feeling the labor shortage.
"Mad rush describes it pretty well — staffing shortages, supply chain shortages, a rush of students coming in who are new to campus," one dining services employee from the University of Georgia (UGA) told Yahoo Finance. "Everybody's overworked."
The hospitality industry generally continues to be a short-staffed sector as the Delta variant surges.
"If you're gonna go into an office job, you can pretty much manage the exposure that you potentially have with others," Stephan Meier, a professor at Columbia Business School, told Yahoo Finance. "While if you work in a job that's student-facing, especially in dining areas, it's very difficult to completely keep a distance."
There were a record 10.9 million job openings in America at the end of July. And with COVID-19 hospitalizations and death surging across the country, Meier added, "that uncertainty regarding how risky is it really, is gonna lead more people to say maybe I'm gonna wait a little longer."
'Nearly impossible to find a place to eat'
Schools across the country — from Duke University to Illinois State University and the University of Northern Iowa to Washington State University — have reported staffing shortages affecting campus dining and hospitality services.
"We've got several vacancies, and we've been searching and actively interviewing and hiring over the last six months," Sarah Larson, director of dining services at Washington State, told Yahoo Finance. "[We believed] that we would have a reasonable group of students returning, and so we would be comfortable growing our system back up. So from a professional perspective, we're probably 20% lower [in terms of operational capacity] than where we'd like to be."
Vanderbilt, a private research university in Nashville that costs roughly $80,000 a year to attend, is another school that began struggling with dining services within a week of classes starting. (One of this story's authors, Thomas Hum, attends Vanderbilt and is the managing editor of The Vanderbilt Hustler.)
"Vanderbilt has created the perfect mix of getting rid of lunch breaks between classes and understaffing their dining halls, so the average wait is around an hour to get lunch," Sean Mathys, a senior at Vanderbilt University, told Yahoo Finance. "On top of this, they closed their largest dining hall for dinner, making it nearly impossible to find a place to eat."
Students at affected universities are growing increasingly frustrated with the pullback in dining services.
"Last week, I finished my class and ran to the dining hall to get lunch," Mara Petcu, a junior at Vanderbilt University, told Yahoo Finance. "I ran because I knew I had only a short window between classes and there was going to be a line. When I got there, the line was surprisingly long — it was ending outside the building."
Vanderbilt gave students a $50 credit each day from Aug. 24 to 29 to spend on dining options off campus. The daily stipend further compounded the understaffing faced by local restaurants on the university's meal plan, The Vanderbilt Hustler reported.
'Nobody should be waiting a whole hour for a sandwich'
Some schools, such as Bowdoin College, have raised the minimum wage for staff to counter staff shortages.
But that may not be enough.
"We're pretty low-paid," the UGA worker adding, noting that they make a little more than $12 an hour. "People look at the risks involved, the compensation, and they don't think it's worth it compared to other jobs, or compared to just waiting it out."
Meier explained that if potential dining hall workers are avoiding work "due to uncertainty about catching COVID" or not being able to find proper childcare options or concern over infecting their unvaccinated children, then simply upping wages "might be a little bit less effective."
The UGA worker also noted that only a tenth of students coming into that campus dining hall were masked.
"They're not social distancing, there are lines for the grill and pizza section, and the students pretty much stand elbow-to-elbow," they described.
Many universities choose to partner with companies such as Sodexo (SW.PA), a French food services and facilities management company, to supply and manage their dining operations. According to a Sodexo spokesperson, the company is currently leveraging all available resources to minimize the impact of the labor shortages on campus dining services.
"Our Human Resources teams, along with our Labor and Frontline Strategy teams are actively working together to recruit and retain team members to serve our customers and make Sodexo the employer of choice on campus," the spokesperson told Yahoo Finance.
Meanwhile, long lines at understaffed dining halls continue to leave students disgruntled.
"The [sandwich] line is definitely a problem," Charles Shissias, a junior at Vanderbilt University, told Yahoo Finance. "Nobody should be waiting a whole hour for a sandwich."
Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.
Thomas Hum is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @thomashumTV