Workers Battle Freezing Conditions

Author: Claire Rafford and Thomas Murphy, The Observer

While students hunkered down in their rooms due to a severe cold front — nicknamed the “Polar Vortex” — that passed over South Bend on Jan. 30, the University called in workers it deemed essential to student safety and the maintenance of campus.

Chris Abayasinghe, director of Campus Dining, said the University called in staff to make sure dining services continued throughout the deep freeze, providing food to both students and workers.

“Our primary concern has and continues to be, obviously, for the wellbeing of our students, as well as our staff, and we balanced that concern to ensure that they would be able to report to work safely,” Abayasinghe said.

Paul Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications, said precautions were taken to ensure the staff’s safety despite the low temperatures.

“One of the things we arranged … was making sure shuttles were bringing those people that had a distance from where they parked because of the extreme weather,” Browne said.

Abayasinghe echoed Browne’s point, saying that in addition to having the dining hall workers provide food for students, they also provided food for those who drove the transport vehicles.

“Because the decision was made so far in advance for us for the emergency [that] we were also able to work closely with our friends and partners over at [Transportation] Services to be able to work through getting a shuttle, to be able to coordinate that shuttle to ensure our staff were as minimally exposed to the weather as possible,” Abayasinghe said. “We also had the fortunateness of having other Notre Dame staff members come in to drive some of these University vehicles to allow us to do that. So during this period … we also took care of the University’s essential staff so anyone who’s brought in to keep the campus safe and things like that. So we fed them as well.”

Browne said those workers called in on Wednesday were notified around noon Monday, the same time students were notified that classes were cancelled.

Abayasinghe said one of the other protections the administration put in place for dining workers was opening only locations at Notre Dame deemed “essential” by the University.

“Our main thing as we think about our staff is obviously not to put them in harm’s way. So, when we declare an area as an essential service area, in our response this time … we opened NDH and SDH, and we also opened in collaboration with our friends over at student activities and student affairs, the Huddle Mart,” he said. “So we made a determination that we were primarily going to open those areas versus [the Duncan Student Center], for example or any of the other restaurants. So we were thoughtful to minimize how many people we had on campus, and then further with additional transportation services, being able to get them back to their vehicles.”

In addition to these safety precautions, Browne said the University compensated employees appropriately.

“We increased their compensation to reflect the harsher conditions, or the unusual conditions, and that applied to service workers and others,” Browne said. “ … [Those] who were not required to come in, they were not docked but they were paid, even though they didn’t have to come in.”

Considering the dangerous and difficult circumstances the Polar Vortex created, Abayasinghe said he feels Campus Dining staff handled the situation well.

“They just continue to amaze and impress me and especially when there’s a certain situation or emergency as to how they pull together. They’re pretty cool,” he said.