Sick and weak, a student worker for the UW Food Services (UWFS) was forced to spend several hours to collect a Verification of Illness Form (VIF) for missing their four-hour shift for the first time.
They then waited almost an hour for their manager to take the VIF off their hands, but it was another woman who finally took it.
“She seemed stunned that I would have been asked for a VIF just for one shift. I went through all of that hassle to call in sick for a four hour long shift,” the student said in their complaint. Many students came forward about their experiences working in UWFS when Seneca Velling, Chair of the Feds Board of Directors and VP Operations and Finance-elect, and Austin Richards, member of Student Council launched a months-long investigation into complaints of mistreatment in UWFS.
Their report was presented to Student Council on Feb 10. The main issues that came to light during the investigation were: inappropriate requests for VIFs, no reimbursement to students for VIFs, failure to provide staff with schedules on time or take students’ hours into consideration, lack of appropriate compensation for work by employees that went beyond their job description, health and safety violations such as raw chicken.
The situations differed depending on the locations and the managers involved, despite sound policies on the part of the UWFS department.
“Their practices and internal departmental policies are strong. The problem is they weren’t being enforced by management and often management would decide their own rules on what should be the way it is,” Velling said. “The following thought on policy requirements … were very differently enforced if it was a regular university manager a QP manager (QP being the unit the Union for Food Service Workers and for Plant Operations).”
UWFS was consulted about the mistreatment of workers. Their response has been swift and includes internal investigations, policy reviews, and the creation of a staff relations committee.
“Senior Administration and Management recognized the gravity of the concerns and expressed they did not condone any of the actions or behaviours outlined in the student feedback we had received.
“UWFS noted their commitment to resolve these issues and ensure a more consistent approach to their staff and student experience that reflects the values of their department and the University as a whole,” Velling and Richard’s report to Student Council stated.
Velling also appreciated the speed with which UWFS not only responded, but reacted.
“They’ve demonstrated a commitment to change that I think is really admirable especially given the time… This is a university that is often galatial UW food services acted with a surprisingly quick pace to address allegations and outstanding concerns,” he said.
Richards was personally invested in the cause — a close friend of his, who is now an alumnus, was one of the former UWFS workers who also submitted their complaints for the report. Richards would hear about firsthand.
“One of the reasons I got so involved with this was because, one of the former employees, now also Waterloo alumnus. Whose story we got and we presented was someone that’s very close to me and so I got to hear you know everyday when they would come back it would be this thing or that thing. So I was hearing about this like real time. And it bothered me that someone I knew was that close to me was going to be treated that way,” he said.
Although the situations faced by students have been unfortunate, there is a silver lining. Richards and Velling both hope that this will be an educational experience for students and they will be inspired to know their rights and learn to advocate for themselves in the workplace, a skill that may be useful in any work context.
“That’s a learning experience… Know your rights [and] know what is right and ethical and then don’t be afraid to ask questions. You should definitely question your employer if you think something’s wrong,” Velling said.
“I think that’s the biggest takeaway from all of this when students go into the real world and the employer needs to be respectful and understand that you don’t know everything and you want to learn. You want to get better so you can do your job better,” Richards said.