March 18, 2005

First Person

Cafeteria Blues: Temp Work Puts American Dream On Hold

By Pedro Paulo Viegas De Sa

I have been a temp worker in the cafeteria at Stanford University for two and a half years now — and I have only gotten a dollar raise since I started. Working as a temp in the Bay Area is a sure ticket to nowhere. The boss sees you as something discardable, like used toilet paper.

I have seen so many people come and go that it is hard to remember faces and names. The other day my sister told me about this kid who goes to school with her and worked with me, but I could not remember him at all.

It doesn’t help that I am turning 24 and trying to pay my way through the ever more expensive community college system. Most of the kids I work with are in high school, and you feel kinda out of place around these minors. The manager is always complaining: “Why my workers keep quitting on me?” And I think, “If y’all weren’t so miserly and treated the workers like people, they might think on staying a little more.” I’ve seen managers yell at workers for no reason, dumping on them their home problems. And the temp workers are scared of getting fired, so they take any crap. But then the frustration builds up and they just quit.

The kitchen workers, like the cooks and dishwashers, are mostly unionized and get good wages and benefits. It is like a divide-and-conquer technique, because they have a very bad opinion of the front workers, like servers and cashiers, and management knows that. Kitchen workers think we in the front are lazy and sloppy in our work, and maybe we are. But while they get benefits and good wages, the managers treating us like crap. We get low pay and no job security at all, so it’s hard to find any motivation to do your job well.

Like this one day I see a hair on the plate where I am going to put food, and I know I am supposed to change plates and get a clean one. I look at the pile of clean plates and there are only a few. The line of hungry students is at least 30-strong. I would have to run all the way into the dish room, grab a bunch of plates and bring it to the front after I serve this fool.

Well, a little hair never killed anybody.

The attitude of the students here doesn’t help, either. Why people who go to Stanford feel entitled to treat the school workers like they are servants still escapes me — one student actually snapped his fingers at me. Next thing you know one of them will call me “boy” or try to whip me if I spill something.

There is a lot of racism, outright and covert. It comes from management, co-workers and students. The difference between the racism of co-workers and that of management is that management can really screw up your life. In my two years here, I’ve gotten no promotion at all. A year ago, this white kid comes in and he is totally clueless. I helped train him, but he was never a good worker. Six months later, he was my supervisor. My current supervisor, I trained him too. The majority of the front workers are Latino or black. My story is not unique.

Different from my other high school co-workers in the front, as a college student I have bills to pay and a dire need for money. I need to pay for my school, food and transportation. And the money they pay me here just ain’t cutting it. I am trying to get a second job. That, on top of my school and all the other stuff I need to do, is going to be a lot for me, so forget about social life. Yet, it probably still will not be enough for me to take care of myself.

It’s funny, people told me when I moved here from Brazil that this was going to be the land of opportunity, that if you work hard enough you can get what you need. What a lie. The American dream ends when you become a temp worker.

De Sa, 24, writes for Silicon Valley DeBug, the voice of young writers, artists and workers in Silicon Valley.

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