Faculty House Labor Dispute: The Issues

Stolen Tips

Although Faculty House continues to charge customers 15-22% in gratuities and service charges, workers do not receive any tips unless they are paid in cash. This is a clear violation of customer and worker trust, departs drastically from past practices, and violates New York state labor law.[i]

While Columbia paid workers all gratuities and service charges in the past, the university stopped paying workers the 15-22% gratuity and service charge appended automatically to customer bills for events held at the facility.[ii] Furthermore, when faculty members dine on the fourth floor and pay their gratuity with a credit card, management doesn’t pass the tips on to the workers. Regular tip theft is not a matter of misunderstanding, but rather one of calculation. When workers questioned this alteration—which meant thousands of dollars in lost wages for each of them—management moved the accounting office from Faculty House to Lerner Hall and refused to submit its books for review.

Part-Time Workers with 80-Hour Weeks

Most of the workers at Faculty House are classified as part-time workers although they actually work well beyond full-time hours.

Most of the Faculty House workers need to work full time to provide for their families and want access to the guaranteed and pre-scheduled hours and better benefits that full-time status provides.

However, Columbia refuses to classify these workers as full-time, desiring the flexibility and docility that a core of part-time workers—eager for the extra hours—creates. These “part-time” workers experience this “flexibility” as insecurity and insult: because of the low wages they receive, many clock over 80 hours a week on a regular basis just to make ends meet.

Instead of classifying union workers as full-time and hiring more union workers on a part-time or full-time basis, Columbia hires workers from outside temporary agencies, paying the agencies $35/hour per worker (while union workers at Faculty House are paid an average $11-13/hour).

At the start of negotiations, Columbia told Faculty House workers that it couldn’t afford to pay them a living wage. When the workers brought up this $35/hour expense as proof to the contrary, Columbia tried to undermine their claim: management desisted from hiring as many temporary workers from outside agencies and began hiring more student workers employed by their own temporary agency (operating out of Lerner Hall). Although Faculty House relies heavily on these “casual workers,” Columbia pays them even lower wages than those paid by the notoriously exploitative outside temporary agencies.[iii]

Arbitrary Stipend Reductions

In violation of the current contract, Columbia has arbitrarily reduced—by more than 50%—summer- and winter-break lay-off stipends.

When workers are laid off during summer and winter breaks, they are not allowed to collect unemployment because of a loophole in state unemployment laws. Instead, Columbia pays them a stipend that varies based on how long they have worked at Faculty House. The minimum summer stipend, as specified in the current contract, is $150/week. However, Columbia has arbitrarily reduced the stipends of some workers to as little as $65/week, refusing to explain why.[iv] (By way of comparison, the workers would collect $405/week in unemployment if they were eligible.)

Even workers who receive stipends between $100-200/week report, unsurprisingly, that it is not enough to live on. Adding insult to injury, Columbia deducts 20% of the stipend when a worker is called in to work during the course of a lay-off week, which amounts, as management has condescendingly told them, to paying for the “opportunity” to work. In addition, when they report for work during layoff periods workers are paid at their normal rate of pay instead of the on-call catering rate customary in the industry.

Columbia’s negotiator, Sheila Garvey, has refused to discuss an increase in the summer stipend, dismissing the matter by telling two workers that she would not allow Columbia University to pay them to spend their summers “drinking in the Dominican Republic.”  Neither of the workers present is from the Dominican Republic and both of them work during the summer to support their families.

No Job Classification

All of the workers at Faculty House are classified as porters in spite of long careers in particular culinary and hospitality occupations.

Classifying all workers as porters, on top of being inaccurate, means that managers can assign any worker to tasks outside of the experience and expertise of his or her daily routine. This endangers the safety of all workers at Faculty House and adds unnecessary stress and insecurity to their long workdays.

Sheila Garvey refuses to negotiate the return of job classification (which workers enjoyed in previous contracts), revealing her fundamental disrespect of workers at Faculty House. Giving workers clearly defined positions amounts to a small sacrifice on Columbia’s end but would immeasurably improve the everyday experience of the workers.

Image Source: Sinjihn Smith, Columbia Spectator, January 24, 2013

Image Source: Sinjihn Smith, Columbia Spectator, January 24, 2013

Below Living Wages

Faculty House workers are being asked to accept significantly lower wage increases than any other unionized group on campus, and after years of paltry increases and even reductions in their wage rates.

Faculty House workers signed their current contract in June 2009, the spring before Faculty House reopened after 18 months of renovations.  In that opening contract, Columbia pushed workers to accept a 10% wage decrease: the administration claimed uncertainty about the new facility’s revenue.  That fear was ungrounded: Faculty House, targeting outside business, made monumental profits, as the managers soon bragged to their workers in weekly meetings.

Faculty House workers—including the part-time workers who work full-time hours—are forced to work long days to earn enough to make ends meet. Although they work hard and perform their jobs well and, as one worker put it, “with a smile, always with a smile,” they are making unacceptable sacrifices in order to serve the Columbia community. Few of them have enough time to spend with their families, and many struggle to balance childcare needs with their partners. They have had to sell off cars and move into basement apartments to make rent. The raise offered by the University—a $200 lump sum increase in the first year of the contract, a 1% increase in the second, and no increase the third year—will have little positive impact on workers still struggling under the burden of past cuts.

Healthcare Cuts

Workers are being asked to accept a lower healthcare plan and to pay for cost increases with their wages.

Columbia is using healthcare costs as a lever to lower wages and cut benefits.


[i] “Tip Appropriation,” Section 196-d of the New York State Labor Law. See also Philip Davidoff, “Legal Alert: New York’s Highest Court Addresses Service Charges,” February 28, 2008, http://fordharrison.com/shownews.aspx?Show=3511.

[ii] See, for example, “Voucher” between Faculty House and Tatiana Smoliarova, December 4, 2012, in SWS possession. The voucher permits the event organizer to charge items at Faculty House and specifies that a “15% tip” will be added to the bill. The workers at Faculty House do not receive these tips.

[iii] Letter from Faculty House Employees to NY Division of Labor Standards, May 29, 2012, in SWS possession.

[iv] “Faculty House Local 100 Layoff Pay Rate,” December 19, 2012, in SWS possession.

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