University Housing changes student worker free meal policy

Editor’s Note: The names of student workers have been changed to protect their identity and job security within University Housing. 

Beginning Aug. 16, University Housing student dining service workers will no longer be offered a free meal during their shift. 

Student workers were informed through an email sent out by Dawn Aubrey, associate director of University Housing Dining Services, last Wednesday.

According to the email, the free employee benefit meal is considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue System, IRS. Kirsten Ruby, associate director of housing for communications and marketing, said the change in meal policy follows a University audit.

“(The University audit) determined that a free meal for students would be considered a taxable benefit. That means that if a student received a meal, they would be taxed on the value of that meal,” she said. “That is something the University Housing has no control over.”

Effective in the fall, if a student chooses to have a meal during the time of their shift, they are charged $3 or three credits, depending on the method of payment. 

Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler explained that the change in free meal policy is not applicable to full-time employees because they are considered “essential.”

“(University Housing) realized that only ‘essential’ employees can receive free meals during their shifts without having tax implications,” she said. “Essential employees include full-time workers who can’t leave the facility during their shift, and who might be called back quickly during their meal break. Non-essential employees, for purposes of the tax code, would include people such as dining services office staff and student workers.”

Kaler stated that this resulted in the choice to charge for meals or to count the meal as income to prevent tax liability.

“Dining Services chose the latter as it created less financial burden on the affected employees,” Kaler said.

The IRS Employee Meal guidelines indicate that a meal can be excluded from an employee’s wages if it is provided on business premises, if it is given on behalf of the employer to the employee and if it is for the employer’s convenience.

If a student is unable to obtain a meal within a reasonable period or is in a restricted meal period, then they are excluded from the taxable income, a qualification that applies to student workers.

Emily, a student worker, said she examined the IRS Employee Meal guidelines and disagrees with the change in meal policy, as she found discrepancies between the two. 

“I think that what they were expecting us to do is take an official-sounding reason and accept it and not say anything about it,” she said.

Though students are currently provided with a free meal, they must eat their meal before or after their shift. Emily said the physical work required of student workers causes fatigue — and skipping a meal because of an added cost is not convenient.

“It’s especially important to note that we aren’t allowed to bring outside food into the dining hall ... It’s a risk of cross contamination,” she said. “Even if you wanted to eat during the times that you’re supposed to be eating, you really can’t unless you agree to buy meals from them.”

Carlie, another student worker, expressed that it is unfair for University Housing to charge for meals considering the amount of food wasted by students and the dining services.

“Working for dining services, you see how much food they throw away,” she said. “Then they tell you they’re going to charge you for food even though they throw (away) more than half the food actually cooked.” 

The change of meal policy only applies to student employees. Full-time non-student employees were not given a notice of the change taking place.

“They’re trying to get a couple more bucks off of students,” Emily said. “Just because students can’t be in a union, they think it’s easier to get a sheet rolled over their opinions.”

Ruby said the change does not have too much of an impact. 

“This is still a benefit to receive a meal for $3, a greatly reduced cost for meals,” she said. “Many students who work with us also live with us and have meal plans anyway, so we hope that they will continue to use the meals that they have as part of living with us.”

Ruby stated that the timing of the letter was purposely done to give students the time to make a decision regarding continuing their employment with University Housing. With the timing, the students have the summer to make their decision or find employment elsewhere.

“There’s no time left in the school year to really have any negative side effects,” Emily said.

Jessica can be reached at  

Comments powered by Disqus
  1. Speak out.
    We'd love to hear readers opinions, advice and insight into the articles we post.
  2. Keep language clean.
    We will disapprove all comments that are obscene, vulgar or profane.
  3. Help us flag.
    Please report comments that are abusive.
  4. Be nice.
    All comments that personally attack the author will be deleted. No degrading comments, such as racism, will be approved.

Our comment policy has been adapted from The New York Times.

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Illini.