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Operators Need to Promote Onsite's Role as an Employer of Choice

With all of the activism on a typical college campus, it's common for students to focus their attention on workplace issues as well as a panoply of other social causes. Indeed, many dining directors need to be ready at a moment's notice to answer confrontational questions about everything from the so-called "living wage," to amazon deforestation, animal rights and free-trade coffee.

I thought about this again last week, when my internet newsposting engine turned up an article from, the independent campus student newspaper at University of Georgia.

The article, "Food services' budget surplus funds additions," actually portrays the issue of what happens to the $1.5 million "profit" generated by the campus foodservice auxiliary each year in a rather positive light.

(In it, the department is characterized as putting the money"back to where it came from—to students in the dining halls," with FSD Michael Floyd—always a good marketer— handily noting that past budget surpluses helped build a new dining commons, provide air conditioning for the upper level of another hall and pay for a new pizza oven.)

Nothing new there, but kudos to Floyd for having a populistfriendly explanation ready for how department cash surpluses are spent.

Meanwhiile, Walmart hasn't managed to spin its labor-relations story quite as effectively, as anyone reading the newspapers in recent weeks well knows. At the same time the company has been seeking to turn a "kinder, gentler" face to the public by espousing new plans for energy efficiency, The New York Times reported on the text of a 26-page internal memo to its board of directors that proposed some highly controversial strategies for reducing employee health care and labor costs.

These included such practices as requiring all employees to spend time each week "gathering carts," as part of an effort to attract a healthier employee mix to the payroll (and, presumably, to discourage some others from applying).

The memo also provided an interesting demographic look at Walmart's employees. It noted, for example, that "the cost of an associate with seven years of tenure is almost 55 percent more than the cost of an associate with one year of tenure, yet there is no difference in his or her productivity." Among other facts: 46 percent of Walmart employees' children are uninsured or on Medicaid.

As the Times itself noted in an editorial a few days later, some of the memo's recommendations "can also be surprisingly forward-thinking," focusing on wellness-type strategies. But all-in-all, the hard facts portrayed in the context of the labor issues facing the country's largest employer underscore the difficult competitive choices facing every employer.-They also show how difficult it is for our "market solution" based economy to solve these challenges in a socially constructive way.

On the other hand, while front line foodservice employee wages are indeed relatively low, most schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions actually have a very good story to tell when their employment and benefit policies are compared to the private sector.

In my view, many could much more effectively "toot their own horn" in this respect, reminding visitors, students, guests, patients and the public that onsite employers usually offer their employees a benefit package that is a far better alternative than those typically available in the private sector.

Here's another message many of us could get behind: that socially-responsible customers who eat at onsite establishments in lieu of "on the street" alternatives should feel good about supporting jobs that give employees health insurance and other family-friendly benefit options. And if they believe in supporting the social good, they should consider eating in our restaurants and cafès more often.

Just another example of why noncommercial operators have a much better story to tell their customers than is often portrayed.

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