Last summer, the administration spent $3.5 million renovating the John Jay Dining Hall, according to John Jay workers who spoke with Dining executives, but wished to remain anonymous. While I am a fan of the faux-mahogany varnish and the feng shui of the new utensil stations, Dining Services neglected to fix a safety problem that workers have been complaining about for decades: basic air conditioning and ventilation.
As any first-year eating at John Jay can affirm, temperatures—especially during the warmer months—are uncomfortably high. In fact, according to workers who measured the temperatures of John Jay’s grilling and pizza stations, temperatures can be as high as 114 degrees. And while this is a point of annoyance for students, it’s a matter of basic safety for the dining workers, who spend most of their time cooking in the back grills and rushing around the kitchen to keep us fed. In the last few weeks alone, several workers have suffered heat exhaustion and taken off work because of it.
This problem first came to my attention at the beginning of this year—I noticed a worker, whose name I will not mention, behind the grill soaking in sweat. When I asked him about it, he said there was a ventilation unit, but it was simply not sufficient.
Last week, after hearing from workers that Vicki Dunn, executive director of Dining , had flatly rejected their pleas for a new air conditioning unit, Student Worker Solidarity decided it was time to act, gathering over 1,000 student signatures in support of the installation. For those who might argue that we should have discussed the issue with the administration before mobilizing the student body, we simply say this: The workers asked and were rejected. Their petition should have been enough.
When we delivered the petition to Dunn on Tuesday, she argued that the installation could be made as long as students were willing to pay for the air conditioning system. This reasoning is absurd. For a university that boasts an endowment of over $7 billion, an air-conditioning system is just another drop in the bucket. If the administration cannot even provide basic safety for everyone in John Jay Dining Hall, their plush positions and administrative bonuses seem increasingly unnecessary.
This issue is non-negotiable. Safety is not a luxury; it’s a right. For us even to be debating this issue at one of the richest universities in the world shows how out of touch the administration is with the basic needs of the Columbia community. Why build another campus in Jordan when you don’t even have air conditioning in this one?
In fact, the temperatures in several of the kitchen areas violate federal safety standards as outlined by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s General Duty Clause. According to OSHA safety standards, a working area with temperatures high as 115 degrees would be classified as a “Very High to Extreme” risk level, warranting immediate “aggressive protective measures.”
These blatant violations underscore a generally callous attitude on the part of Dining management that I have seen firsthand. Every time I go to chat with workers, managers will immediately follow me around and attempt to listen into our conversations or yell at workers to get back to work. Even more egregiously, when word got around that a certain “George” was passing around our petition for workers to review, management chewed out a pizza-counter worker, also named George, despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the campaign. This uninformed, domineering spirit on the part of dining management reveals a larger administrative disregard for workers and the reason for which safe working conditions are still not a given.
On the other hand, for students, this issue has not been controversial. Most of us understand that people need not put themselves in danger just to make a living. In five days alone, Student Worker Solidarity obtained 1,100 signatures. Students and workers have spoken. It is time for the administration to listen.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore. He is a member of Student Worker Solidarity.
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