Dining workers mark end of Hampshire College contract, era

  • Mark Rentschler, left, Debbie Oyer, second from left, and Jim Wyatt, right, share a laugh during a farewell party for food service workers who lost their jobs at the college after its recent financial crisis, Tuesday, at Fitzwilly’s in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mark Rentschler, from left, Debbie Oyer, Danillo Salas and Dejwana Harris chat during a farewell party for food service workers, Tuesday Aug. 13, 2019, at Fitzwilly's in Northampton, who were laid off from the college after its recent financial crisis. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Deacon Almedina talks about his six years as a cook at Hampshire College during a farewell party for food service workers, Tuesday Aug. 13, 2019, at Fitzwilly's in Northampton, who were laid off from the college after its recent financial crisis. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Danillo Salas, standing, gets a hug from Dejwana Harris beside Mark Rentschler, left, Debbie Oyer, second from left, and others, during a farewell party for food service workers, Tuesday Aug. 13, 2019, at Fitzwilly's in Northampton, who were laid off from the college after its recent financial crisis. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2019 11:03:03 PM

NORTHAMPTON — To the outside observer, the 20-person gathering upstairs at Fitzwilly’s Restaurant on Tuesday might have seemed like an unremarkable lunch among friends. The group ordered drinks and appetizers, laughing and sharing stories.

But the buoyant atmosphere hid the mournful reason for the occasion. It was the last day of Hampshire College’s contract with the food and catering services company Bon Appétit Management Co., which ran two campus cafés and catering at Hampshire until earlier this year when the school — facing financial crisis — decided not to renew that contract. 

Most of those at the table Tuesday had lost their jobs as a result of that choice. They got together for one last goodbye.

The group represents part of the human toll of the board of trustees’ Feb. 1 vote — amid Hampshire’s search for a partner institution to ease its money troubles — to admit what will be a mere 13-person class this fall. At a school that relies on tuition for the vast majority of revenue, that meant job cuts. 

“There’s a lot being lost,” said Debbie Oyer, 62, who spent 24 years working in food services at the college. “Our jobs, for one,” responded Jim Wyatt, 64, a 20-year food-service employee and the president of the union representing the Bon Appétit workers — the only union on Hampshire’s campus. 

Hampshire spokesman John Courtmanche said that of the 42 Bon Appétit workers employed at the start of 2019, seven have applied and been rehired to work for the college’s dining services this academic year “at the same pay rate as under their previous employer.” The college will directly employ a total of 20 to 25 full-time food service employees next year, he added.

Community impacts

The community impacts of a college closing — or, in Hampshire’s case, shrinking in half — were a central theme late last month at a forum with the state’s commissioner of higher education in Amherst, hosted by state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. 

At that meeting, local officials including Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman urged the state to consider the economic and social impacts a community experiences when a college shrinks or closes. 

Those assembled for Tuesday’s farewell party are one of the most obvious examples of those impacts. In addition to facing unemployment and financial insecurity, the former Bon Appétit workers said the job cuts mean the loss of an intimate community that had deep ties on campus.

“It was just an awesome, fun-loving place to be at,” said Deacon Almedina, a 30-year-old cook who had worked at Hampshire for six years. “It just sucks. I met some of my best friends there … Now what are we going to do?”

Memories from across decades at the college were on full display at the gathering, though they may not have been visible to others. 

There was the red T-shirt that 26-year employee Mark Rentschler, 65, was wearing. The name of the food service workers’ baseball team, Chicken Fingers, was displayed across the front. They used to play against a team from the physical plant, Rentschler recalled.

“I’ve given my heart and soul to this place for years,” he said.

Farther down the table, Almedina sat next to his fiancée, Holly Renaud, whom he met when the two both worked in the dining commons. 

“We’re family, that’s why we’re all here” he said, looking down the long table at his former co-workers.

Job openings 

In a statement, Courtmanche said that the college appreciates the work of Bon Appétit employees and their contributions to campus life as members of the college.

“Hampshire did invite and continues to invite food-service workers to apply for positions in the new Hampshire Dining office, and the College has hired numerous former Bon Appétit employees as College employees,” Courtmanche said.

Courtmanche said that the college invited Bon Appétit employees to the Five College career fair on campus in May, “recognizing there are dozens of open food-service positions throughout the Five Colleges.” 

“For any Bon Appétit worker who has not transitioned to new employment within the Bon Appétit company or elsewhere, Hampshire invites them to apply to Hampshire Dining and/or to leverage our Five College relationships,” Courtmanche wrote.

Earlier this year the college said it would likely expand the number of student workers in food services. Courtmanche declined to say how large that expansion will be, but said that, as in previous years, students funded by the federal work-study program will be offered part-time dining services positions that pay minimum wage.

Not the same

Some at Tuesday’s party said they hadn’t applied to food-service jobs at Hampshire because they didn’t believe they’d be able to get the hours, work days or income they previously had. Others felt like they wouldn’t be hired, or that management would make their employment difficult.

“I’m the president of the union,” Wyatt said. “They don’t want the union there.”

That was also the sentiment of a group of students who have allied themselves with the Bon Appétit employees ever since their union drive in 2014, recently raising money to support a “hardship fund” for the workers. The group has called on the college to offer preferential rehiring to the workers, and health care coverage for those who lost their jobs, among other demands.

One of those students, 21-year-old Alexis Cespedes, said the decision to cancel the Bon Appétit contract should be seen in the context of a “broader history of anti-worker sentiment” at the college.

“I think it’s easy to forget that the financial crisis was at its core a labor crisis, and still is,” Cespedes said, adding that the current optimism in the Hampshire community must be met with a recognition of the large-scale layoffs and job cuts that have occurred. 

Since the beginning of the year, Hampshire has laid off 33 staff members from various departments. On the faculty side, 26 took voluntary leaves of absence, 21 had their hours reduced, 11 are retiring, and 12 visiting faculty members did not have their year-to-year contracts renewed.

Financial reality

In his statement, Courtmanche said that the decision to end the Bon Appétit contract was made because Hampshire is operating as a smaller college serving a projected 600 to 650 students. That’s down from around 1,200 last year.

“This financial reality had nothing to do with the labor union to which Bon Appétit employees belong,” Courtmanche said. “Hampshire’s mission as a nonprofit includes ethical citizenship and social justice, and we support the ability of any workers to unionize, including on campus.”

Courtmanche also said that “Bon Appétit Management Co. is part of a global, for-profit, multibillion-dollar corporation, and the company manages its relationship with its employees, including their union agreement.”

While some of the Bon Appétit employees are without jobs, others have been able to get work elsewhere. Danilo Salas, 52, said he was able to find employment at nearby local college. Speaking in Spanish, he said he’ll miss the two years he spent at Hampshire.

“It was my family,” he said.

Jim Watson, 68, had worked part-time for 15 years in catering at the college. He said he and others want to see the college succeed. And with experts predicting many college closures as the higher education industry faces an uncertain future, Watson said he hopes the experience at Hampshire can teach lessons to other schools across the country.

“They’re experiencing what a lot of colleges are,” he said. 

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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