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Interview with Faculty House Worker Ozzie Cousins

Ozzie Cousins

After hearing about a class action lawsuit being filed against Columbia by one of the Faculty House workers, Bwog decided to ask Osmond (Ozzie) Cousins, the man who filed the lawsuit, about his reasons for filing it and what he hoped to achieve. Social justice enthusiast Tamsin Pargiter reports. 

Bwog: Can you describe what you hope to accomplish with the lawsuit?

Ozzie: Well there are negotiations going on between Columbia and the union about our health insurance, which is being cut, and about wage increases, or lack thereof. This class action lawsuit is focusing on our stolen tips, which we have been going back and forth about for over 8 years. Columbia makes a tremendous amount of money by having events at Faculty House. When they have events, they charge the clients an 18-22% service charge, which the clients believe is entitled to the workers. Columbia has decided that we don’t deserve that 18-22%, and so they roll over that money into building maintenance, and we receive none of it. The lawsuit reflects Oliver Twist, as the poor boy coming forward, saying, “please, give me another bowl of porridge, because I am hungry.”

B: Why file the lawsuit now, when this has been going on for so long?

O: The lawsuit became a last resort, primarily because Columbia decided not to do anything progressive regarding our service charge and tips. A professor gave us the lawyer’s information. In my mind, it was at the right moment. The lawyer was available, so we just grabbed the opportunity.

B: Did you feel that the lawsuit was the only way for you to resolve this issue?

O: I don’t know if you watch a program called Undercover Boss, but it is a show about huge companies, where people like Bollinger, CEO’s and presidents of companies, disguise themselves as workers. They mingle with the workers and hear the gripes and complaints of their staff, they see what they go through. The point is to see what is going on inside of their companies, with the intention of improving it. It’s very touching to see leaders who really care about the individuals within their companies. I formally extend this invitation to my bosses: to Bollinger, to the racist negotiator Shelia Garvey, to Scott Wright, and to all the other demagogues of this institution: if you are serious and compassionate about our cause, then dress down, take your suits off, and come mingle with us. Come see what experiences we are having on a day-to-day basis, come see what we have to offer, how diligent, compassionate, and loyal we are. Whatever image Columbia has reflected on the outside world is dependent on us, the little people, and our dedication –we are the people behind the scenes who enable this institution to run smoothly.

B: Did the administration respond in any way when you filed the lawsuit?

O: Their only response has been underhanded and shady, they have not officially responded or mentioned the lawsuit. They deleted the mention of the service charge from the menu, and they are trying to hide it. It’s a juvenile way of dealing with the situation, because they can’t erase our memories, we know that the 18-22% was there. I expected them to respond in a way that is useful and progressive. It’s really premature for them to change it, as faculty can contest that they were paying the 18-22% prior to last Monday when they omitted it from their menu. If they thought there was nothing wrong with their service charge, why are they trying to hide it?

B: Are you concerned that Columbia might retaliate?

O: There’s always a possibility of retaliation…I don’t know how low they will stoop. If we have paperwork that says 18-22%, and they’re willing to change it and pretend that it never existed…then who knows what they will do. There is a tremendous amount of evidence that the 22% was there, and has been, for years. They have been caught red handed, but they are still trying to deny that anything has happened. You can see the evidence, and that is why there are so many people willing to support us. Show us that you respect and appreciate us by giving us enough money to feed our families, by giving us money that we have worked hard for.

B: If Columbia did retaliate against you, do you think there would be a student response on campus?

O: Definitely. There’s hundreds of students willing to claw at Columbia, for lots of reasons. When you come here you get the sense that there is a community, one that you would be proud to be a part of, only to find out that they treat their own workers so shabbily. That is why students are so passionate about our cause. The students, their parents, and the faculty, need to know what is going on, as our struggle reflects on the community as a whole. Columbia spends thousands of dollars researching exploitation and cruel labor practices in third world countries, but they should be looking on their own campus. This issue is close to home, and people can relate to it, so it breaks people’s hearts that a huge giant like this, who is so central to our community, is stealing tips from workers. To put us, the little people, in a situation where we have to file a lawsuit, reflects very badly on the institution as a community entity. Students pay $60,000+ to come here and expect a comprehensive experience that thinks about integrity, compassion, and community –as well as a solid education. Your education should be so well rounded that you have a sense of community when you graduate from here, and what Columbia is doing to its workers has a direct effect on the students.

B: Can you talk about how the process of the lawsuit works?

O: It’s a class action lawsuit, meaning that the burden of proof is on me. We have approximately 35 staff members, who will each receive a letter in the mail seeking their support. The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday, March 27th, and Columbia still needs to respond. It could take years; it depends on how much they drag the process out. Employees are eager and anxious to see this thing resolve. The statute of limitations is 6 years, so we are forced to go back to 2007, but it is unfortunate that we can’t go back farther, because there’s a lot of tips before than that we will be robbed of and that we can never get that back. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been stolen from us.

B: Are you feeling hopeful?

O: Definitely. I am hopeful because at the end of the day, the question that the judge will ask the jury is ‘do you think that clients understood where the service charge was going? Do you believe that Columbia University deceived both clients and workers with this service charge, and have been denying workers money that is rightfully theirs?’

B: How can students help make an impact?

O: Students have been a tremendous help because they have given us a voice: with the school’s radio station and in student publications. Students have rallied with us and stood in solidarity with us.

Most importantly, they have acknowledged our voice and made it valid, because previously no one was listening. So talk about these issues in your community, tell you friends about it, bring it up in class, and support us in our struggle.

Interview edited for brevity and clarity.

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  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Have they been class certified yet? That’s usually where the ruling is defacto made – either you get class certified and the sued party settles immediately or you don’t and it’s over.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Interesting. Do you know how they determine that certification?

  • yikes says:

    @yikes no compassion here, I see.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous If columbia is such an abusive, unfair employer that systematically steals tips, the workers should have quit and found work elsewhere. I doubt faculty house would have much trouble filling the positions given that there are people begging for jobs now

    1. anon says:

      @anon @Anonymous:

      Isn’t that the point, though? That they’re not likely to quit because finding a job now has become so difficult? Employees shouldn’t have to suffer this kind of treatment no matter what the circumstances. The service charge should go to service workers. Columbia, or any employer for that matter, shouldn’t take advantage of a bad economy to reduce benefits (and pay, and not offer salary increases for loyal employees).

      1. Put differently says:

        @Put differently So should employees then not take advantage of a tight labor market to increase pay from their loyal employer? The labor market is shit right now and like it or not these employees aren’t in a strong bargaining position. If they had the skills that could fetch better compensation somewhere else, they would quit and work somewhere else. They haven’t done so because they feel this is the best they can do in this economy.

        1. Put Differently says:

          @Put Differently If I can get away with treating my workers badly, then why shouldn’t I?

          1. JMH says:

            @JMH The point is not to let them get away with it.

  • Some thoughts says:

    @Some thoughts Every private club I’ve been to specifically doesn’t allow tipping the wait staff, but they also don’t charge some ambiguous “service fee.”

    If a waiter at, say, Denny’s didn’t receive her tip money, then she probably couldn’t afford to live whatsoever. The fact that these workers clearly can (to whatever degree of (dis)comfort) indicates to me that their regular wages are high enough to compensate for the tip income.

    It sounds to me like Faculty House is skeezy for tricking their guests into thinking that they were paying gratuity. The parties that should be upset are the guests, but even that is a stretch. I don’t get how the workers could be deceived if at no point they were paid tips, which seems to be the case. Still skeezy, but not deceptive or illegal (from the worker’s point of view).

    If the workers don’t like their jobs, then they should try and find something better (good luck…). Why did a food service worker receive healthcare benefits in the first place? There is a huge supply of unskilled and foodservice labor in New York, and the unemployment rate in Harlem is disturbingly high. I’m sure we could find grateful employees from the neighborhood who would be more than willing to join our *special community*, or however this guy puts it.

  • SEAS 2012 says:

    @SEAS 2012 I would hardly call the staff “the little people” or “behind the scenes” at least not from a student’s perspective. They helped shaped my experience at Columbia. There was the night security guard who was there to offer a supportive comment when I was coming back from the library in the middle of the night, and the janitor who worked on my floor freshman year who I stayed in contact with during my four years and would always remind me to ask her if I needed anything when I was studying in Butler.

    I was always amazed at the high quality of staff that worked at Columbia and I am forever thankful to them for making it an amazing place.

  • When I read that Shelia Garvey is a racist says:

    @When I read that Shelia Garvey is a racist This guy’s credibility dropped. The race card is old, played out, and just ineffective as a means to getting what you want. Name calling won’t win this guy the money he deserves, and I hope the lawyer the workers contracted can better reflect that.

    1. FYI says:

      @FYI This isn’t a case of “playing the race card”. Sheila Garvey is an overt racist. For example, to justify why an increase in summer stipends was non-negotiable, she told two workers that Columbia wasn’t going to pay workers to spend their summers “drinking in the Dominican Republic.” Needless to say, neither of the workers she addressed this comment to were actually Dominican, and both work to support their families during the summer months to supplement the unlivable stipend that Columbia provides when the workers are laid off during the summer.

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous i have to say: that quote doesn’t really have a ring of “overt racism.” when i hear the words “drinking in the dominican republic,” i think of spring breakers in punta cana. no racial subtext — unless you think that any mention of alcohol in reference to latinos, is racist. without a doubt, you know sheila better than i do, so you’re in a better to position to judge whether or not she’s racist. but if this is the worst thing that she has ever said/done, i’d have to question your claim. to be honest, your judgment seems to have been colored by whatever negative, non-racial interactions you may have had with her.

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous meant to say: in reference to the latinos the dominican republic

        2. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous I appreciate that you’re trying to be critical about how the term racism is applied, but the context of this statement is that Sheila Garvey sat across the table from people of color and told them that any stipend increase would just go towards drinking in the Caribbean. This is racist because she assumes the first thing workers would do if they got more money would be to blow it on being lazy (reminiscent of the racialization of welfare, that any support to POC in poverty is supporting laziness) and that all Spanish speaking people are Dominican (she implied that they would be going home to drink/laze about). Forget the fact that the stipends they get while being laid off could barely pay for a bus ticket to Philly much less a flight to the DR, forget the fact that these workers would LOVE to visit their families and wouldn’t be drinking on the beach if they could even make the trip, and forget the fact that they work 60-80 hours a week and quite frankly DESERVE a vacation–Sheila Garvey has no compassion and sympathy.

          1. seasaw says:

            @seasaw Where are Shelia Garvey’s comments documented? Seems like a seriously fed up thing to say.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous “to the racist negotiator Shelia Garvey?”

    Wonder who’ll get bitten in the ass by putting this in print. Probably Sheila Garvey.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Columbia’s Trustees need to ante up and pay these guys what they deserve.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Was this the swatza who was just kicked out as mudd dean?

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