Pomona College enacted an outstanding policy over the summer that limits the interactions between dining hall employees and non-employees while employees are on duty or on break, spurring complaints from students and staff that the administration is prohibiting dialogue in the workplace. In response to these complaints, Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson sent out an e-mail to members of the Pomona College community Nov. 7 maintaining that the policy outlines what should constitute reasonable conduct in the workplace.
According to Sisson, the policy was first enacted in response to several incidents over the summer in which non-members of the Pomona summer staff entered dining halls without paying for their meals and interacted with dining hall workers.
“This policy is about not distracting workers when they are trying to work and not impeding the flow of the serving line and the cashier’s line. Students and workers can still exchange pleasantries, but it shouldn’t end up being a long conversation,” she said. “There were incidents last year of students taking their meals and eating them while very engaged with the cashier.”
Advocates for the pro-union group of dining hall staff, Workers for Justice (WFJ), however, criticized the policy, claiming that it is unconstitutional and undermines the atmosphere of openness and community that Pomona claims to foster. They take particular issue with terms of the policy such as, “Non-employees may not interrupt nor visit with employees while they are working” and “If a non-employee wants to visit with an employee during their break or lunch, they must go outside the building,” which were outlined in a memo distributed to dining hall staff shortly after the incidents this summer.
Supporters of WFJ have organized an official petition, “Pomona College: Let Students Talk to the Workers Who Cook Their Meals,” which calls for a repeal of the policy. It is sponsored by UNITE HERE, a nationwide labor union that has been supporting WFJ.
Will Mullaney PO ’12, Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) Commissioner of Communications and WFJ supporter, argued that the policy not only discourages bonds within the community but is also against the law.
“This violates the First Amendment, our rights of free speech. This is a public space, even if it’s on private property,” he said. “Pomona prides itself on being a liberal, progressive institution that allows speech between workers and students, but they don’t actually want students to speak to workers.”
“Cashiers, in particular, should be allowed to speak with students because this fosters community bonds across race, class, [and] age that Pomona claims to want to foster,” Mullaney added. “Students can talk to cashiers and cashiers can still do their jobs.”
Sisson said the policy is not designed to limit contact between workers and students and emphasized that students can still interact with workers, as long as they are respectful of the workplace environment.
“The policy is really about setting some boundaries,” she said. “We are a community, but we each have our responsibilities within the community, and these boundaries we’re setting are not much different from those in other types of workplaces.”
Eric Martinez Cornejo PO ’14, a WFJ supporter, acknowledged that prolonged student-worker interactions while employees are on the job could distract workers from their responsibilities, but he took issue with the school’s requirement that these interactions be held outside of the dining halls, even when an employee is on break.
“I think the policy is just. I think that any student or member of the community should not engage in open conversation with employees who are working,” he said. “But employees should be able to talk freely during breaks—it’s their own time. I think the dining hall should be a place of open dialogue.”
“Forcing a student and worker to step outside a dining hall to have a conversation is unjust,” he added. “When an employee is on their break they should be allowed to speak with any member of the community.”
Cornejo also questioned the administration’s motives in implementing the policy, speculating that it could be partly designed to prevent workers from speaking to members of the wider Pomona community about unionization efforts.
“This policy aims to prevent the easy flow of communication between students and workers in general,” he said. “It’s another part of the whole anti-union effort the administration has been engaged in.”
Mullaney agreed, citing his personal experiences of being asked to leave while discussing unionization efforts with dining hall staff.
“I was asked to leave while speaking with workers when they were eating lunch. It was 1:20 [p.m.], when the dining halls were closed for operation and students were filtering out,” he said. “I was also asked to leave when I was talking to workers in the main dining area about Food Day, an event that was associated with UNITE HERE.”
“Both times the manager was suspicious of us because we were talking about workers standing up for their rights,” Mullaney added. “That’s what they don’t want to hear. That’s why the manager enforced the policy.”
Sisson maintained that the policy defines an appropriate sense of professionalism in the workplace, and she encouraged students to express their thoughts on the issue.
“It wasn’t clear what the rules were before this policy,” she said. “We just want to make sure students understand that even though we’re a community, these people also have a job to do.”
“Students care about this issue. I’m not surprised that they’re expressing their views,” she added. “This is where they live; this is their community. I don’t find it obtrusive or illegitimate. I just think there might be some misunderstanding.”