Conversation with a Pomona chef on COVID-19, working on campus and union organizing

Oldenborg language building vegetation on either side
A small group of workers is still on campus to support 5C students who remain in college housing, including the Pomona College students living in Oldenborg. (Chris Nardi • The Student Life)

While 5C students have mostly dispersed across the country and the world, a small group are still living on campus. And a small corps of workers, like Pomona College chef Benny Avina, remains as well, providing critical services for the students who are left.

“I’ve been working here for so many years, and we need to take care of whoever is left,” Avina said. “There’s students that don’t have nowhere to go, somebody has to stay. To me, it’s very personal to feed those students.”

Avina said his devotion to students is the reason he keeps coming in to work.

“For some students it’s more dangerous to go back, or maybe they come from another country,” he said. “We work for those students.”

There are 81 students still living on Pomona’s campus, all housed in Oldenborg.

During the 36 years that he has served in Pomona’s dining halls, Avina has also advocated for measures to improve the treatment of school employees. The Pomona administration’s reaction to the COVID-19 crisis has shown progress on this front, Avina said. 

The pandemic has left more than 30 million Americans unemployed, with layoffs hitting the food service industry especially hard. But Pomona intends to “pay [each] staff member’s full work schedule regardless of the workload,” according to its coronavirus response page.

“We have pretty good news,” Avina said. “We’re gonna get paid until May, until the year is over. Even if we decided to stay home, we’re gonna get paid. Most of the workers, they decide to go home, and they still get paid 40 hours a week … it’s just a few workers that are still on campus.”

“I’m gonna be honest with you, I didn’t expect it,” he continued. “They really surprised all of us … They really, really took care of the workers in this situation. We give them a lot of credit for that.”

But the increasingly positive relationship between the school and its dining hall workers comes after many years of tension, including a fight for unionization that Avina helped to organize beginning in 2010. 

“When we started organizing, we started for a reason, because back then we had a lot of issues. We had a lot of injustices,” Avina said. “Back then, there were a lot of workers that got hurt because they had to do multiple jobs. It was kind of crazy and it was not the best situation for the workers.”

When efforts to organize began, they were met with resistance from the college.

“We thought it was going to be easy,” Avina said. “It was not easy at all — it was very hard, it was very time-consuming … we got a lot of retaliation in different ways back then.” 

The unionization efforts coincided with the firing of 17 workers who could not provide documentation of work authorization, despite having been employed by Pomona for many years.

Some of those workers have since returned to Pomona’s dining halls following unionization in 2013.

“It’s true that that happened, it’s bad that that happened, but we try to move forward,” Avina said.

He welcomed the progress that has come in the years since unionization.

“We have a voice,” he said. “The administration changed a lot. We have more communication and we got more justice.” 

Avina said it has become much easier to voice complaints to the college’s administration. 

“You’re not scared anymore, so everything goes through a normal process,” he said. “You just go in and say, ‘I think that what you’re doing right now is not the right thing. Let’s follow our contract.'”

Another change has been the distribution of work among employees, which now adheres to the language of their contracts and job descriptions, Avina said. 

“A cashier is a cashier … they have their job description, but also they don’t have to go and help the cook to prep stuff for tomorrow — nothing like that. It’s much better,” Avina said.

Workers have also seen significant improvements in their costs of health and dental care. Before unionizing, Avina had to pay $500 per month for coverage. Now, he says the cost has been brought down to just over $100, and covers his family as well. 

Earlier this year, employees also secured a $4.10 wage increase over a period of three years, beginning with a $1.10 increase that took effect Jan. 1, and a $0.60 increase every six months for the life of the contract, according to Avina. 

The success was a result of negotiations between the school’s administration and “Unite Here! Local 11”, the union that represents Pomona’s dining hall workers, an organization in which Avina is actively involved. 

“It was not too difficult because I think [when] you have a good relationship it makes everything easy,” Avina said of securing the pay raise. “We negotiated. We know what we want and I think it was a very good contract.”

The administration’s reaction to pandemic-related closures is another step in this direction. “They took the chance and opportunity to build a better relationship,” Avina said.

School administrators and employees remaining on campus are also taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the colleges. For dining hall workers, this means face masks, frequent hand washing and distance between workers. The campus is also closed to members of the local Claremont community.

Avina welcomed the precautions being taken.

“I think they’re really concerned, they take it very seriously. So that’s why they make us feel that we are very secure here,” he said. “We never know, we could get [the virus] from somewhere else, but here I think we feel very comfortable.”

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