Members of Harvard’s custodial staff called on the University to guarantee it would not lay off workers in the spring in two rallies held last week, as institutions of higher education across the U.S. reckon with the economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The protests started Thursday and continued into Friday, growing in numbers after the Executive Vice President Katie N. Lapp announced a new policy on emergency excused absences to staff Thursday.
Under the policy, workers directly employed by Harvard can use emergency excused absences to maintain 70 percent of their regular pay if their job has seen cuts — but contracted workers cannot.
This announcement struck a sour note with the roughly 300 custodians on campus who are contracted by Harvard but directly work for different employers.
32BJ — the local branch of the Service Employees International Union, which covers hundreds of campus custodial staff — organized the rallies. Roxana Rivera, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, released a media advisory ahead of the initial rally Thursday expressing discontent with the University for neglecting its custodial staff.
“The 1,000 essential workers we represent at Harvard, including hundreds of custodians, have risked their lives throughout this pandemic to keep this community clean, safe, and healthy,” Rivera wrote. “As the pandemic drags on, these custodians need their jobs more than ever. As a major employer for Cambridge and surrounding communities, Harvard needs to step up and protect the jobs whole families are depending on.”
She also wrote that, given the University’s large endowment and financial reserves, it should offer the same protections to all its workers, whether directly employed or contracted.
Harvard has provided full pay and benefits to contract and direct hire employees since March during the pandemic and subsequent economic fallout, and all workers – contract and direct hires – will continue to be fully supported until at least Jan. 15, according to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton.
At the onset of the pandemic, the University agreed to guarantee workload protections to all of its staff, regardless of type of employment. However, as their finances faced more strain, this decision had to be reversed, and the school was unable to offer similiar protections to all employees, according to Lapp’s announcement. Lapp wrote that contracted workers would have to turn to their own employers for the same job security, as providing the benefit to them does not fall under Harvard’s purview.
“In those limited instances in which Schools or Units determine the need to maintain current service levels or increase them due to anticipated spring semester needs, excused emergency absence may be extended as necessary by their employers to sustain regular pay of contract workers,” Lapp wrote.
The announcement from Lapp is only the latest concern at Harvard for 32BJ SEIU, which is contending with a Nov. 15 expiration date on its current contract with the University.
The union pressed the University to grant a one-year extension to the existing contract, prioritizing providing immediate, short-term job security to essential workers in the midst of the pandemic. Harvard administrators agreed to the extension but did not agree to a guarantee of no layoffs.
Various political leaders and labor activists spoke out in support of the custodians at the rallies, saying they are concerned that Harvard’s labor practices are unfair. Massachusetts State Representative Marjorie C. Decker spoke at one of the rallies, expressing solidarity with the custodians and demanding Harvard commit to securing work for all its employees through the pandemic.
U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also voiced support for Harvard’s contracted employees in a tweet responding to a Boston Globe article Sunday afternoon.
“Harvard needs to do the right and just thing and extend COVID-19 worker protections for contracted staff,” the tweet reads.
Paula Martinez, a contracted custodian at the Harvard Business School, said she was dismayed by the fact that Harvard had not guaranteed her and her contracted coworkers the same job security as the directly-employed staff.
“Many of our co-workers, including myself, depend on this job to sustain their families as well,” Martinez said. “Our goal overall has been no layoffs, one year extension, and a fair treatment for all my coworkers.”
She said she wants the University to hear her concerns and acknowledge the amount of help contracted custodians have provided over the past few months.
“We are going to continue fighting until we get our voice heard,” Martinez said.
—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.