This article is part of Belabored Stories, a series by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen featuring short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harvard University’s campus has been dormant since last spring, and as COVID-19 cases rise through the winter, it’s unclear when normal classes will resume. The administration recently announced that the majority of the university’s staff would continue to work remotely through June 2021. For the janitorial staff, however, work never ended. Roughly 700 janitorial workers have held onto their jobs through the pandemic, maintaining their full union wages, even though in some cases they are working on a reduced schedule. But for hundreds of subcontracted frontline workers, next year may bring a round of layoffs at the worst possible time.
In November, Harvard announced that it would drop its emergency excused absence policy, under which personnel have continued receiving their full salaries and benefits. Come January 15, the janitorial staff and other workers who are directly employed by Harvard will receive up to 70 percent of their normal compensation, and contracted workers will get nothing. The union that represents both direct hires and contracted workers on the Harvard janitorial staff, SEIU 32BJ, takes this as a signal that the administration could be casting aside about 300 subcontracted janitors, who are employed through third-party firms.
Speaking through a translator (full disclosure: the interpreter is a former colleague of mine), Nora, who has worked as a subcontracted janitor at Harvard since 2011, said that she fears that starting next month, of the janitors who are temporarily laid off, only direct hires will be receiving the 70 percent emergency pay. “The subcontracted ones, if they get cut, that’s it. They’re completely cut off.”
The administration claims that Harvard had to scrap its excused absence policy for contract workers due to the financial pressures of dealing with the pandemic and the attendant operational changes. In the memorandum announcing the decision to cut compensation for workers, University Vice President Katherine N. Lapp wrote, “We expect continued financial pressure as students defer admission, on-campus programming is canceled, financial aid needs increase, and new costs for campus testing, tracing, and safety must be absorbed.”
Although many colleges and universities across the country have taken a financial hit from the pandemic, not everyone is convinced that the world’s richest university must resort to austerity. In recent weeks, SEIU workers have protested the policy change, and both Harvard students and Cambridge City Council members have demanded that the administration preserve the jobs and benefits of the affected contracted workers—who include janitorial, security, and dining hall staff. A petition signed by more than 1,100 Harvard students, staff, faculty, and alumni stated that, under the new policy,
more than 850 contracted workers—around 300 custodial staff, 300 security officers, and 250 dining staff—are at risk of being laid off without pay in the midst of surging COVID-19 cases and an economic crisis. Many of these workers come from the same communities and families as their directly employed counterparts, bringing a heightened level of division, anxiety, and fear.
The loss of protections for contract workers also reflects the main division on campus: between “essential” workers and the faculty, administrative staff, and students of one of the world’s wealthiest institutions.
Nora said she feels fortunate to have kept her job so far, though it is somewhat nerve-wracking to be cleaning the campus. While classes are not in session and she does not work every day like she used to, she encounters quite a few people on the job. “There are students around all the time,” she said. “When the students are around, if it’s the time that [the workers] are supposed to be cleaning, they’ll just kind of duck in, grab the garbage, and duck out, just to try to limit everybody’s exposure. Both the students’ exposure to the workers and the workers’ exposure to the students. But there are people around.”
“Early on in the pandemic,” she recalled, “people were not paying attention to mask-wearing and social distancing.” But workers pressed higher-ups for stricter safety policies on campus, “and now, people do take good care around mask wearing and distancing. Still, having to go every day, and being exposed every day, it’s continuously stressful.”
Nothing is as stressful, however, as the possibility of not being able to work at all starting in January.
“Harvard has been a good employer and a good place to work,” she said. She wants the administration to recognize that “we came in every day during a global pandemic, whenever we were asked to do so, even though we were afraid, and now, Harvard is not taking into consideration that we’re mothers and fathers and we made sacrifices, with the possibility of exposing our own families to this deadly illness.”
Nora added that she is now the main income earner for her household, because her husband lost his job, and the family that rents a room in her house has also lost work.
“It’s been very sad and disappointing to work at . . . one of the richest universities in the world and to be treated like this,” she said. “The workers understand that this is a situation that the university did not create, but it’s also a situation that the workers can’t help. And they just want a fair share of what’s right.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.