The Cambridge City Council unanimously passed a resolution in its meeting Monday supporting Harvard janitors and custodians currently seeking a contract extension.
Through the policy order, the City urged the University to extend contracts for all 700 janitors to ensure they have secure employment throughout the duration of the spring semester. The policy also proposes that Harvard provide “economic improvement” for those workers during 2021 as recognition for their services as “essential workers” during the global pandemic.
The policy order comes in light of two rallies organized by 32BJ — a branch of the Service Employees International Union, which represents hundreds of campus custodians — that took place last Thursday and Friday, just days before the union’s contract was set to expire.
Members of the union picketed in Harvard Yard to demand the University guarantee their employment for the spring semester. On Thursday, Harvard announced a new emergency excused absence policy, through which workers directly employed by the University can receive 70 percent of their regular pay if the University does not require their labor.
As a result, the roughly 300 custodians on campus who contract with Harvard but are employed by different agencies will not be able to reap the benefits of the policy.
The union has also expressed concerns with the University for not providing sufficient PPE and for its sparse communication with workers regarding how to deal with cases of COVID-19.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, Angelica Silva, a University library custodian of 12 years, voiced her discontent with the University’s recently announced paid leave policy during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“As essential workers, throughout the pandemic we have helped Harvard stop the spread of COVID on campus,” she said. “I, myself, have done many things to help [keep] Harvard safe, often going above and beyond my job description.”
Silva said she believes custodians like herself provide essential services to the University, and that their role has been especially important over the past eight months as COVID-19 shut down much of Harvard’s operations. Silva said she stopped a fire from spreading in a University library in September.
“In addition to keeping the library clean and sanitary, this September, I noticed a fire starting in the library, and I contained it,” she said. “When the firemen came, they couldn’t believe that I had managed to stop it from spreading. The librarians were very thankful.”
“Now, Harvard is leaving us behind, when we need this job most,” she said. “We and our families depend on our salaries and our health care, especially during a global pandemic and economic crisis.”
City Councilor Marc C. McGovern contextualized the latest point of tension between 32BJ and the University with past conflicts between Harvard and its unions, including those that serve dining hall workers and graduate students.
“These groups are not asking for the world. They’re asking for some basic rights and living wages and basic protections, and yet I feel like they get nickeled and dimed all the time,” McGovern said. “I really hope Harvard hears this. I hope we don’t have to be back in this situation again over what is really a pretty straightforward and reasonable request, as they typically are.”
Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui also criticized the University for its treatment of staff.
“This is just disgraceful to keep seeing this happen, and I hope Harvard moves to change this,” she said.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an emailed statement the University empathizes with workers’ situations and that it hopes to soon reach an agreement with the Service Employees International Union.
“We recognize the unfortunate impact of the pandemic and that many workers have been unable to work through no fault of their own,” Newton wrote. “Since March of this year, the University has taken the extraordinary step of extending full pay and benefits to both its own as well as contract workers who had no work to perform due to the pandemic and the remote work and learning status of much of the University. This benefit was recently extended until January 15 of next year.”
During Monday’s meeting, the City Council also discussed funding a survey for Cambridge residents to report their experiences with affordable housing, the renaming of the Agassiz neighborhood, and measures implemented around the City to address climate change.
—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.
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