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'Kind of scary when I first heard about it': Marketplace workers react to COVID-19 outbreak, shutdown

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When a COVID-19 outbreak shut Marketplace’s dining services down, the East Campus Union hall it’s housed in became a shell of its normal self. 

The lights were dim. Catering companies were brought in to meet emergency needs, and a handful of employees offered a limited meal selection. The warm food, the upbeat pop music and the Marketplace workers all disappeared. 

Marketplace and Trinity Café closed down March 27, after several Marketplace dining staff tested positive for COVID-19. The two eateries reopened on April 12. 

At least 13 Marketplace staff members tested positive, according to a March 30 coronavirus update shared by the University. 

Julia Anderson, who has worked at Marketplace for 36 years, said she spent the time relaxing and wrapping her head around the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It was kind of scary when I first heard about it,  but when you do a lot of research it becomes a lot clearer,” she said.

Workers received paid leave during their mandated quarantine, according to Charles Gooch, a 46-year Marketplace veteran who serves as chief steward for the Local 77 union, which represents most of the dining hall’s staff.

When the dining hall first shut down, Gooch said its workers were in “panic mode” with little sense of what had happened.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” he said on March 31. Marketplace employees were asked to sequester in their homes during the two weeks before March 31, according to Gooch.

He credits Barbara Stokes, director of residential dining services, for doing her best to take care of Marketplace employees. 

“She is making sure people [Marketplace workers] are getting tested and getting the vaccine if they want to,” he said.

Still, Gooch cited confusion about surveillance testing for COVID-19. He has never been tested, nor been asked to get tested, he said.

Uncertainty surrounding Duke’s COVID-19 testing policy for Marketplace workers is not new. Anderson and colleague William Minor expressed in January that they were unsure about Duke’s exact testing policies for food service workers.

Duke Dining team members, including contract workers not directly employed by Duke, were encouraged to take part in the University’s free asymptomatic and weekly surveillance COVID-19 testing, according to Stokes and Robert Coffey, executive director of dining services. 

The administrators also noted that Duke Dining staff, including contract workers, were among the first group of University employees offered vaccinations.

Anderson was among them: Stokes scheduled a vaccination appointment for her, she said. Duke provided transportation. 

“So I left work, and then I went to get vaccinated, and I came back,” Anderson said. After Marketplace shut down, Duke Health called her every day, she said.

She let out a huge breath when asked about recent COVID-19 testing. 

“Oh my God, since this has happened, I have been tested more times than I can remember!” she said. She’s been swabbed twice in the last week of March, she added. 

Dining works to meet needs of staff, though concerns remain

Even though he appreciates Stokes’s efforts, Gooch said he feels higher-level dining management isn't concerned with the safety and wellness of Marketplace workers.

“We only deal with Director Stokes on down,” he said. 

Gooch also said temporary workers employed at Marketplace do not use the COVID-19 symptom monitoring app that standard Marketplace employees are required to use. He said that discrepancy puts him and other employees at higher risk.

“Temp workers can just knock on the door and come on in. I’m disappointed in my management for allowing this to happen,” he said.

Coffey said that Duke’s symptom monitoring app, SymMon, is available to temporary workers. Those workers, who are contracted to temporarily work for Duke through the professional services company Grace Federal, are also required to complete a COVID-19 training course similarly required of workers permanently employed by Duke, he added, and must read and sign other coronavirus safety documents.

“The supervisor/manager/chef on duty completes a required manual Employee Health Questionnaire verification for ALL team members arriving for their work shift to East Union, including the Grace Federal temp employees,” Coffey wrote in an email.

Stokes said Duke administrators have helped meet the needs of dining employees since the pandemic began and throughout the two week closure. 

“It is only with their leadership and support and the help of many departments that we were able to adjust quickly to meet the student needs, as well as, support the staff,” she said.

Coffey stated that he speaks and meets with Stokes daily, sometimes multiple times a day. In addition to meetings with Stokes, the two directors also had daily meetings with Duke occupational and environmental health experts to review the East Union’s progress since the recent outbreak.

Anderson said she believed Duke Dining’s management handled the outbreak well once they became aware of the situation. She was excited to go back to work—she wanted to see her co-workers and students in person again.

Recently, her wish was fulfilled. Marketplace seemed to celebrate its reopening with a well-timed weeklong menu of cruise-themed dinners, serving cuisines from different parts of the globe each night. Tuesday was Hawaii and Bahamas night, and the dining hall was decorated with plush sea creatures, fishing nets and lifesavers while reggae music played overhead. Anderson was in her usual spot at the cash register, wearing a lei while she enthusiastically greeted students and handed them utensils.

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