Union employees find new jobs, adjust to construction

Amber Cockrell, junior in pre-dentistry, and Ebony Williams, senior in psychology, sort through paperwork at the Cat's Den on Feb. 15, 2016. Both Cockrell and Williams are still working in the K-State Student Union during the construction and employee transition. (EvanAnn Boose | The Collegian)

With the plans for improvement in the K-State Student Union came the close of businesses, including the food court. This left both full-time and student workers searching for other jobs.

“This wasn’t a last-minute thing,” Michael Higgins, 2015 K-State alum, former Caribou Coffee assistant manager and former catering assistant manager, said. “We all knew it was happening. We encouraged people to find new jobs.”

Construction on the Union was scheduled to begin during the summer of 2015 but was pushed back until December 2015 due to weather and the construction of a new chilled-water plant that had various parts of campus under construction, according to Audrey Taggart-Kagdis, assistant director of marketing and community relations for the Union.

Higgins said there were only two entry-level catering employees in the fall, while everyone else was working in the food court. All other staff members had left for other job opportunities, leaving the work up to the management staff.

“They all pursued finding jobs this summer when it was a little bit slow in Manhattan because they were worried that they wouldn’t be able to find a job in the middle of the school year,” Higgins said. “That’s why there wasn’t as many people on the floor in the food court.”

The changes in employment are due to more than just the construction. Sodexo, an international company that deals in food service contracts, ran many of the on-campus eating establishments, including the food court, Caribou Coffee, Salsarita’s and Einstein Bagels in Hale Library for an annual subsidy of around $150,000, Taggart-Kagdis said.

When Sodexo’s contract ended, the Union decided to take a different route by allowing individual restaurants to bid on the six spots that will be available when the construction is completed.

“It was quite expensive,” Taggart-Kagdis said. “That was the whole point of changing our food service model, getting rid of contract food service and working directly with the restaurants.”

Although negotiations are still in place, Taggart-Kagdis said several of the restaurants that were in the food court may be returning, along with other local and chain operations.

In addition to the employees who lost their jobs in the food court and Salsarita’s, others went through management and ownership changes. The Union Computer Store, Cats’ Den and Einstein Bagels are now run by Follet Higher Education Group, and Caribou Coffee became Radina’s Coffeehouse, Taggart-Kagdis said.

Despite these changes, many of the employees stayed on and worked through the challenges presented by the construction.

Tasks that used to be simple for the Cats’ Den employees, like making the morning beverages, bringing in new shipments and taking out the trash are taking twice as long because of the construction all around the store, Ebony Williams, senior in psychology and Cats’ Den employee, said.

When the Cats’ Den employees found out “through the grapevine” about the construction in the Union, their concerns were aimed toward the day-to-day challenges it presents to their jobs, Amber Cockrell, junior in pre-dentistry and Cats’ Den employee said.

“My thoughts were, ‘How are we going to stay open business-wise? Was the traffic going to be worse or better? What about getting around the Union when we get shipments and stuff like that?’” Williams said.

According to Christina Pitts, senior in social work and Cats’ Den employee, the store did stay open, things did become harder and they did end up needing more employees because of higher traffic from construction workers and students needing meals and directions.

Radina’s hired Zac Ralston, Caribou Coffee general manager, to continue in his position as they transitioned into the new business. Higgins said Ralston then extended an invitation to all of the fall 2015 Caribou staff to stay on and work for Radina’s.

“He’s got incredible experience in coffee shops,” Higgins said. “I thought that was really great that he let them stay on because they have good chemistry, so that’s important.”

While Union employment was limited without Sodexo and the food court, Taggart-Kagdis said she feels that more student employment opportunities are ahead.

“My assumption is they are going to want to hire a student workforce,” Taggart-Kagdis said. “We are one of the largest student employers on campus. It’s good experience for students to have that.”