Kids in the Hall

Some would say the basement kitchen of Davenport’s dining hall is no place for a child. Massive knives, fierce sieves, gargantuan ovens and freezers a hippo could get lost in are some of the kitchen’s most obvious perils. A body four feet high could easily disappear in the fray. But others might note the fun of seeing pastries get iced or watching soup bubble in big pots. Practically everything gleams.

And few could deny that the upstairs dining area holds even more appeal. Even college students have been tempted to play Harry Potter underneath the chandelier, or make faces at the solemn portraits on the wall.

Fewer still would say that it is safer, or more enjoyable, for children to be home by themselves for four hours a day after school. This dilemma plays out constantly for the many Yale workers who are single parents with children at home. It’s a problem many Americans face. Everyone wants to spend time with their kids, babysitters are expensive, and most children are curious to see their parents at work. Yale, in particular, is an enticing place for children: the courtyards are big and green, the colleges full of crannies to explore, and the dining halls stocked with four tubs of ice cream a night. Not to mention the lure of college students. Big kids are cool.

Although Yale seems the perfect place to bring your daughter to work, practical concerns often win out. According to Diderot Desgrottes, a Davenport chef who spends time in the basement kitchen, “It’s extremely unsafe down here. People get hurt all the time.” Nevertheless, Desgrottes acknowledges the dilemma of the single parent. “If there’s an emergency or something, you can’t just leave them at home. You don’t have that many options.”

Though Yale workers are contractually barred from bringing any children to their shift, the practice remains a staple in many dining halls. Briana Janelle Ursini, granddaughter of Davenport’s Joanne Ursini, has been visiting the dining hall since she was two. It didn’t seem to be a problem for anyone.

“She’d sit quietly at one of the tables, and she would read, or sketch, or write poetry,” Ursini explains. “She even knew how to use the computers upstairs.” The Davenport community, she says, was welcoming, and the management didn’t seem to mind. “Kids would even ask me, ‘Joanne, can she hang out with us?’ Then they’d all go off kicking a ball around, or reading a book.” Ursini explains that she didn’t rely on Davenport to entertain her granddaughter. It was for emergencies, or when Briana’s school let out early. “It was nice for her, knowing what her grandmother was doing when she wasn’t there. She loved going downstairs and watching the inner workings of the place—to see me baking, watching me prepare the salad bar.”

Problems began to arise, however, when more children started showing up at Davenport. Assistant Manager Hugo Vergara says, “It didn’t really bother me at first. But if everybody comes with their kids, then the manager has to take action.”  Davenport isn’t a day care, he says, and it wasn’t fair to allow some workers the privilege of childcare and not others. So Brianna doesn’t come anymore. “Now I have to pay a person to take care of her,” Ursini says. “I tried to take her to the Boys’ club, but she says the kids there act like animals.”

Vergara has a managerial perspective on the problem. “Employees are not supposed to bring their kids,” he says, “and it’s hard for the parents to concentrate on the job.” At the same time, the dining halls need all the staff they can get, and if a worker has to use a sick day to stay home with a child, everyone loses out.

In Calhoun, a similar pattern arises. Annett Ramos, who started working in the dining hall this year, says she brings her daughter Lydia in about once a month. “I called and said I’d have to stay home to watch her, because I couldn’t get a babysitter. But they said they’d rather have me bring her here than not come at all.”

“Sometimes we understand,” explains Vergara, who often allows a child to come rather than risk being understaffed. It’s better for the workers, too—if they stay home more than five times over three months, they’re issued a verbal warning. After that, they could be fired.

Vergara takes out a sheet charting the patterns of dining hall sick days. Topping the list of reasons why people don’t show are “single parent child care issues.”  While he knows this claim is legitimate, Vergara worries that people have begun to use it as an excuse.

The Yale labor contract states that “to qualify for sick leave pay, an employee is required to be in fact unable to work due to illness or injury.” Exceptions to this rule include jury duty, a call to military service, or a death in the family. There is no mention of a need for childcare. In the absence of such sanctioned excuses, an employee may be fired; calling in sick “under false pretenses,” notes the contract, constitutes grounds for dismissal.

Yale provides lists of babysitting and daycare services on its “WorkLife” website, but, according to Vergara, staff rarely use the suggestions. “Not too many people take advantage of them. They don’t want to spend the money.” Starting in the spring of 2005, Yale provided subsidized rates to parents who needed “caregivers on call” in the case of emergencies. Even with the subsidy, though, parents end up paying between seven and fifteen dollars per hour.

Workers and management alike say they’d love to see an entirely free day care or after school program on campus. Students could staff the program as volunteers. The large number of Yalies participating in tutoring groups such as TIES, Splatter, and other programs, suggests a population willing to help.

“There could be one unit for all of Yale,” Ursini imagines. “There’d be people of certain criteria, watching the kids do their homework, and it’d be costless, and you’d know that there’s integrity behind it.”

Support for such a dream is widespread. Shoshana Grant, who works in Davenport and has a baby on the way, says she’d love to be able to “keep an eye on her son” in a college daycare center. Vergara, too, is enthused. “That would be awesome. It’d be good for the workers, and good for us too, because if someone calls in to say they’re staying home with their kids, we can say, ‘just bring them here!’”

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