Nate Bennett naturally smiles a lot. That’s probably for the best because being a food service manager at the College Nine and Ten dining hall during a budget crisis may not provide too many reasons to smile.
Although he’s currently dealing with the school’s financial woes, Bennett’s 20-year career has been widely varied.
“I’ve fed people at four-star resorts and I’ve fed people for 7 cents a meal,” he said. “I came in from managing the Homeless [Services] Center of Santa Cruz for many years, and I’ve made friends with the public I serve. I feel I’m pretty well-liked, as long as you don’t steal food.”
Despite his optimistic disposition, Bennett has experienced his share of tribulations. The fact that food service employees are both union and non-union has caused some complications.
“From this level down [below managers], you’re part of the union. From this level up [managers and above], you’re not,” he said.
Bennett was prepared for the role, however. He even took a class called “Managing in a Union Environment.”
Bennett is a problem solver, and this system put his skills to the test.
“Last year, during the [union] protests, we — the management — got behind the picket lines, climbed the hill, and we made food,” he said. “People still had to eat. It wasn’t our disdain for the union that did that, it was our commitment to our customer. I like challenges like that: Get your skills and logistics together with other people and make something happen before your eyes.”
Though this complicated system may allow Bennett to display his commitment and skill, it tends to cause conflict.
“There has been a natural mechanism that when somebody goes, [we] don’t replace them. We’re out of money,” Bennett said. “That isn’t necessarily the case for the union folks, that’s the case for the management. If our kitchen is one cook short, we’re required by contract to find somebody.”
Bennett said the budget crisis is something that impacts everyone.
“People see what naturally hits their pocketbook,” he said. “As a state, we haven’t paid our bills for some time, and I know that’s trickled down in part to me — that’s my part in that.”
Though budget cuts are making for a tumultuous and sometimes conflicting atmosphere, Bennett said the challenges he faces demand compromise and understanding.
“I’ve learned to be sympathetic with my superiors for facing that pressure,” he said. “We were told at the start of the year that we’d take furloughs.”
Still, Bennett is aware that things are changing.
“As the managers, we’re trying to be as efficient as possible,” he said. “We’re not complaining, but you have to change your priorities. It’s something you have to deal with.”
In the face of these difficulties, Bennett feels the student body may not be aware of the complexities of the situation.
“What the student body doesn’t understand is the division between represented staff [union] and management,” he said. “That tension between the two worlds is something we’re caught in the middle of as managers. We know we need to give them room to get together and do their thing, but it’s not [management’s] fault, and we both know that. We’re a team.”