At 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, a noisy throng of students is gathered outside the Mary Norton Clapp Academic Commons. It is not a late-night study session that brings most of them there, but the outdoor vending machine. The Tiger Cooler reduced its weekend hours in early September, leaving students scrambling for late-night food options while Campus Dining searches for staff.
For the first time, the Cooler’s Friday and Saturday night closing time has shifted from 2 a.m. (with students allowed to stay in the building until 2:30 a.m.) to 11:30 p.m. due to a shortage of staff to work additional hours, according to Amy Muñoz, associate vice president for Hospitality Services at Occidental.
“This isn’t a step that we take lightly,” Muñoz said. “We understand how much a part of the college experience it is to have the late night hours, especially on the weekends. It’s just we can’t open without staff.”
According to Muñoz, the Cooler’s staff was already unusually small at the beginning of this school year.
“We had a retirement of one of our evening supervisors. Another evening supervisor went out on an unexpected leave,” Muñoz said. “We had two out of four of our full-time cook positions vacated on the evening shift. We did not have any of our part-time evening cooks return, and usually we have at least one who returns.”
Given the different times of the day during which traffic in the Cooler peaks, Lauren Duffy (senior) had one idea for how shifts and workers could be rearranged to meet student demand.
“The Cooler is open at 8 a.m. on weekdays, which I don’t think is necessary per se since the MP [Marketplace] is open and most students will go there for breakfast rather than the Cooler,” Duffy said. “If it just opened at 10 a.m. during the week, they could save those wages from throughout the week and increase the wages after 10 p.m. on weekend nights to incentivize workers to want to work those late night shifts that might not seem so appealing.”
Duffy began a Change.org petition to reinstate the original weekend Cooler hours. According to her, the lack of accessible late-night food options is a safety concern for both Occidental students and the surrounding community.
“For the students that choose to get out and off campus on the weekends, the Cooler being closed at 2:30 a.m. puts a time cap on when students would come back to Oxy. 2 a.m,” Duffy said. “Students will want to get food late at night, regardless of whether the Cooler is open late at night or not. So having it being closed incentivizes them to use their car to get off campus.”
According to Muñoz, regional dynamics and the local economy are also part of the reason for the Cooler’s shortage of cooking staff.
“It has to do with the local economy,” Muñoz said. “The unemployment rate is very low, and the restaurant business is booming in Los Angeles, and that’s a good thing.”
According to the LA Times, due to increases in the LA minimum wage, workers — particularly students who would prefer to be free on weekend nights — might not feel the need to take on late-night shifts; they can earn equivalent amounts by working fewer hours than they would have before the wage increase.
One student who is now working fewer hours at the Cooler is Samantha Moua (senior).
“My freshman year I worked about 15 hours a week because the minimum wage was lower, but now I’m doing 8 hours a week,” Moua said.
Many LA-area workers are in similar situations. According to the LA Times, new restaurants are constantly joining LA’s food scene and many Angelenos, particularly in increasingly gentrified neighborhoods such as Eagle Rock, have a growing appetite for multi-ethnic, speciality cuisine, increasing the demand for cooks.
“It’s not just us,” Muñoz said. “This is regional. There aren’t enough people to fill those positions — at least, qualified people. I would say that we’re pretty picky about who we put in front of our students.”
The Cooler is working hard to find staff and reinstate late-night weekend hours, but the conditions during a labor shortage can be challenging for everyone involved, according to Muñoz.
“We have been working a lot of our staff six days,” Muñoz said. “Last pay period we had five individuals who worked six days. That was just to open the hours we’re open right now: 11:30 p.m. It’s nice to pay people overtime, but eventually people will burn out.”
Moua said she noticed changes in her responsibilities as the staff stretched thin.
“There’s not enough cooks to run properly. My responsibilities have increased,” Moua said. “Someone I used to work with — she’s not a student — is a supervisor now. We’ve taken on what she usually does. Everyone just has to do more, working together; everyone just has to pick up on what has to be done.”
The Cooler also changes its strategy to cope with the limited staff, according to Muñoz.
“We start limiting offerings. If we’re going to have a shortage of staff, we maybe will do fewer menu items,” Muñoz said. “We also delayed opening the Coffee Cart for one week [to move] those employees to the Cooler.”
Between these strategies and the active recruitment for cooks and supervisors, the dining staff has made some progress in filling openings, according to Muñoz.
“We hired another evening supervisor to replace the one who retired,” Muñoz said. “Last week we hired one of our empty cook positions.”
Muñoz said the positions that still need to be filled are one full-time evening cook and some part-time positions. In addition, Muñoz said the Cooler’s fourth supervisor is currently out on medical leave.
Muñoz said the goal is to return the Cooler to its original hours by the end of October, but she must ensure the hours are sustainable throughout the year.
“We have to feel that we can be open until 2:30 in the morning, which means that employees are here until 3 a.m. cleaning up,” Muñoz said. “We have to feel that we are well enough staffed so that when we go to those hours we commit to those hours; we don’t back out.”
Duffy, despite her Change.org petition, said she sympathizes with the Cooler’s shortage.
“I completely understand about the workers being understaffed, and that’s a completely viable reason,” Duffy said. “I just want to make sure that everyone is staying safe on campus and that everyone feels comfortable living at school.”
Moua also said she understands the other side of the issue.
“I understand the student sentiments about not opening up later,” Moua said. “But they need to understand that the workers that are hired here through Oxy aren’t students, and there isn’t enough labor to meet student demands. I know how busy it can get.”
Muñoz and the dining staff agreed with both perspectives, and reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining safety while not overworking current staff.
“Our goal has never been anything else, it has always been to try to get those positions filled,” Muñoz said. “We want to get back to full hours. And so that’s what we’ve been working the hardest on.”
A correction was made to clarify the Cooler’s former closing hours.