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‘Essential workers of Duke’: Marketplace staff keep East Campus dining hall open in pandemic

When first-years walk into Marketplace, 36-year veteran cashier Julia Anderson greets them from behind a plexiglas barrier. A mask now covers her bright smile, and she can no longer offer her huge hugs, but she still says “Hi! How are you doing?” as she hands each student a plastic utensil set.

Over at the beverage station, her colleague William Minor performs the same routine he’s had for years, preparing teas and juices and wiping down dispensers. Because all self-serve options are removed, Minor now also serves drinks to students. He passes paper cups and tea bags through the clear barrier’s small opening, being extra cautious about what he’s touched and how many times he’s changed his gloves.

Much has changed in the East Campus dining hall. Indoor seating is closed for students. Most tables and chairs are wrapped in caution tape. Stickers line the floor, indicating the direction students should travel and the six-foot distance they should keep while standing in line.

The workers who make Marketplace run feel the changes. Both Anderson and Minor, who are good friends, noted how different the eatery’s atmosphere is. They are used to seeing long lines at food stations and loud, crowded tables. But as students rush in and out with takeout boxes, they are experiencing a sort of “separation anxiety” from the students, as Anderson put it.

“The students are not really here at Marketplace because they can’t eat here, and we as employees can’t get to know them like we used to,” Anderson said.

Sometimes students group closely together, chatting excitedly and temporarily forgetting about social distancing guidelines, Anderson said. She gently advises them to stand at least six feet apart. 

“I understand that students have a lot on their minds when they come here, so they’re not necessarily thinking about social distancing,” she said. “I don’t mind reminding them about it, though. We all want students to stay healthy on campus and go home healthy.”

The other side of the Duke bubble

So far, that hope for health has been the broader campus’s reality. Outlets across the country have praised Duke for successfully keeping the coronavirus at bay. The University has emphasized its consistent student testing, a staple of the semester for students and faculty alike.

Overall, Minor and Anderson said they are satisfied with Duke’s effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

“Duke is doing their part by using all their resources to keep its community members safe. We, the employees, just need to do our part,” Anderson said.

However, Anderson and Minor are unsure about Duke’s exact testing policies for food service workers. They say the guidelines are much more lax compared to those governing students and other workers. During the fall semester, the two were only tested once, in October. Over winter break, they were tested a second time, and they will be tested a third time now that the spring semester has begun. 

“I’ve been told that we’re put in a lottery system for testing,” Anderson said. “Some of my coworkers have told me they’ve gotten notifications on their phone or email to get tested.”

“Duke Dining team members take part in the University’s free asymptomatic and weekly surveillance COVID testing,” said Barbara Stokes, director of residential dining services. She highlighted the department’s broad efforts to respond to the pandemic, including mask and glove requirements and training for dining staff on preventing coronavirus spread.

“We are happy to report that we ended the semester with no [Marketplace] team members having contracted the virus,” Stokes said.

Duke Emergency Coordinator Kyle Cavanaugh wrote in an email that faculty and staff were increasingly included in voluntarily testing “as additional capacity was made available.”

“By midsemester, anyone on campus who wanted to participate in surveillance testing had the opportunity to do so,” Cavanaugh said.

The upstairs section of Marketplace is one of seven on-campus locations for COVID-19 testing. Minor believes Marketplace should not be one of the testing sites, and that a vacant building should be used. “Why bring the testing inside this building where we are working?” he asked.

Cavanaugh wrote in an email that testing locations were chosen by a team including environmental health and facilities staff, and that there has not been a single instance of transmission at a testing site. 

“The second floor room in [Marketplace] provides for easy access for students, staff, and faculty,” he wrote. “The site is large enough to safely allow for individuals to participate in the program.” 

Marketplace employees are required to report any possible COVID-19 symptoms daily through the SymMon app. Minor expressed his concern with the app’s effectiveness among dining staff. If workers need a paycheck, he said, they may not be entirely truthful about their symptoms.

“We have a lot of older people in this building, and almost everybody is on some type of medication. Some side effects include things like headaches. Workers might be afraid of being quarantined just from stating they have a headache on the app,” Minor said. 

Minor also mentioned he’s never gotten an email notification to get tested. Like many other Marketplace employees, he didn’t even know he had a Duke email account prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And I’ve been working here for 35 years!” he said.

He credited Stokes for helping all Marketplace employees set up their Duke emails before the University shut down in March. The move allowed dining service workers to host Zoom meetings to prepare for the return of students in August.

Stokes has gotten creative to find ways for Marketplace staff to continue working over the two-month winter break, Minor said, including deep cleaning and virtual training. 

‘We’ve got to work as a family’

Charles Gooch, a longtime Marketplace worker and the current chief steward for the Local 77 union, which represents most of the dining hall’s staff, said the job comes with  unique experiences. He’s constantly exposed to young, bright minds, which helps him keep his youthful thinking. 

“I’ve met young folks from all over the country and from all over the world, from China, Pakistan, Turkey. I wouldn’t have met them without being at Duke, so I feel very blessed to be here,” Gooch said. 

Working at Marketplace during the coronavirus pandemic comes with its own unique experiences: namely, interaction with dozens of students and coworkers, any of whom could carry the virus. Many Marketplace workers worry that if they are infected, they will pass the virus to their children and grandchildren at home, Gooch said.

Gooch, who wore a hat that said “If you can read this, you’re too close”, said he thinks dining service workers should receive hazard pay.

“We are essential workers of Duke because our work requires us to come on-site,” he said. “We feel like we should be compensated in the right way.”

Still, Gooch feels grateful to be in Duke’s dining department, saying that the department is one of the strongest in Local 77. He commended Stokes for truly caring about what each of the dining service workers go through and deal with.

“If we had more management like Barbara Stokes, the union probably wouldn’t even exist!” he said.

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