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Monday, February 20, 2012

The Seasonal University

Lauren’s glasses were stolen three years ago and she’s gone without ever since. Lauren had multi-vision lenses - like I just got - and I can tell you, I don’t know how she’s functioning without them. She tells us she can’t drive or read to her kids without glasses and asks for our help in replacing them.


What strikes me about Lauren’s story, in addition to her important need, is a small statement in her narrative. She tells us “I work at a university in food service. It’s seasonal work, but consistent. I am laid off now for the holidays but will start working again when the next term starts.”


Read that again – Lauren tells us that her work in food service for a university is “seasonal” and that she’s “laid off” for the holidays.


I’ve got friends who work for universities - some as professors, some in facilities management, and others in administration. None of them would consider their work to be “seasonal” and none of them is ever laid off over the holidays or summer break. It’s not the way a university would retain its faculty, staff, and maintenance professionals.


Yet the university for which Lauren works – or the food service contractor they employ - treats her as disposable, laying her off when they don’t need her and rehiring her on their terms. Lauren tells us that the work is “consistent,” which I can only take to mean that she knows her job will be there when the winter or summer break is over. This means that her employer knows she’ll be there, even though they’ve done nothing to earn her loyalty.


There are many who would look at Lauren’s case and wonder why she hasn’t got health insurance or hasn’t saved up for the glasses she needs. Some might think she’s not a good financial planner in managing her resources. I would say that the university and its food service contractor are doing a poor job in managing their resources. If they deal with employees as disposable units, providing neither job security, benefits, nor health insurance, then they’re creating many of the problems we see across the social sector.


Let me be clear, I realize that there are, indeed, fields in which contract labor and seasonal employment make a world of sense. I can find no explanation for why food service workers, whose labor is needed whenever school is in session, should be treated as contract workers and actually laid off over winter break. It’s not as if the university or food service company are unsure whether or not there will be a need for food service come January. The students are coming back and they’ll need to eat – every January, every year.


Our city’s subsidized housing resources, social service resources, and now private donor dollars will go to help Lauren – and I hope they, and we, will help her. But why is the help necessary? Because Lauren is being treated as a food service device rather than as a member of the community of workers, teachers, and administration that makes her university hum.


It’s easy to fault low-income adults for decisions we perceive they may have made. In Lauren’s case, the fault for her inability to access the health resources she needs for her vision care lies not with her, but with the system that employs her as disposable and keeps her in limbo between employed and not.


- megan kashner, founder & ceo