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Subcontracted Guards Decry Lack of Comparable Emergency Benefits to Harvard Employees After Coronavirus Closes Campus Facilities

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Subcontracted security guards at Harvard say they have not been guaranteed the same emergency compensation benefits as the University’s direct-hire employees, even as some guards report losing work and pay following the closure of many campus facilities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working conditions and pay for Harvard employees — especially those who cannot work remotely — have come under scrutiny since the University moved instruction online and announced the temporary closure of many buildings, including most undergraduate dormitories, dining halls, and research labs.

Directly employed dining hall workers, custodians, and other staff who cannot work remotely will receive 30 days of paid leave if the facility where they work closes. This policy has not yet been applied, however, to Harvard’s subcontracted workers, which include certain dining workers, custodians, and security guards.

Several students have voiced concerns in recent weeks about worker compensation; most notably, the Labor and Employment Action Project at Harvard Law School circulated a petition last week urging the University to pay subcontracted and temporary employees who are laid off as a result of the pandemic. The petition, which more than 30 graduate and undergraduate student groups co-signed, has garnered more than 5,000 individual signatures.

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Harvard contracts Securitas North America, a multinational Swedish company, to handle most of its security guard operations. 32BJ Service Employees International Union, a New York-based labor union branch that includes University custodial staff, represents Harvard’s Securitas guards.

Some Securitas guards have reported that their positions have been “displaced” as a result of the closures, 32BJ SEIU Vice President Roxana Rivera wrote in an email.

“We’re working to address those situations and ensure that they are able to get continued employment,” she wrote.

The union is requesting that Harvard give its security officers and custodians the “economic support” they need to provide for their families, according to Rivera.

“We hope that, in this time of crisis, Harvard will do the right thing and offer contracted workers the same protections as they’re offering their directly-employed workers,” she wrote. “This must include the 30-day commitment to paying peoples’ salaries in the case of a layoff, as well as all other special conditions.”

Aryt Alasti, a subcontracted security guard at Harvard, said he and fellow colleagues have found Harvard’s treatment of their vendor employees to be unfair.

“That’s very unfortunate, as obviously many of such workers, who depend upon their incomes to support families and livelihoods, will quickly be in dire financial straits when staffing requirements are reduced or eliminated at their facilities,” Alasti wrote in an email.

He added that, by declining to give its outsourced workers access to the same pay benefits as its full-time workers, Harvard is violating its Wage and Benefit Parity Policy.

The parity policy, which Harvard enacted in 2002, guarantees contracted employees in security, dining, and custodial services receive wages and benefits “comparable” to in-house employees who perform the same work, according to the version of the policy included in Harvard University Dining Services’ most recent union contract.

The current contract between Securitas and 32BJ SEIU stipulates that employees scheduled to work when the University “closes due to an emergency” must be paid at their regular rate.

Alasti wrote in an email that Securitas has reduced some guards’ hours from 40 hours per week to 16 hours.

“I’ve been advised by our union representative that Securitas's basis for laying people off and reducing hours is a ‘management rights’ provision in our contract,” Alasti wrote. “This would only override the requirement to pay employees during declared Harvard emergencies if the argument is based upon an absurd technicality: that the term ‘emergency’ was never used in announcing the shut-down of campuses.”

Area Vice President for Securitas Christopher Connolly wrote in an emailed statement that his company is working to provide “other available schedule opportunities” for those employees affected by facility closures and changes.

“Securitas is working diligently within the confines of the collective bargaining agreement between Securitas Security Services and SEIU 32BJ to re-assign any officers affected by the reduced need for services,” Connolly wrote.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard remains committed to adapting to the ongoing pandemic.

“The University continues to assess and review its HR policies in light of the rapidly changing public health crisis,” Swain wrote.

Last year, several Securitas guards at Harvard alleged Securitas used a different contract provision — one that allowed for non-disciplinary transfers without cause — to leave them in limbo without work and pay as they awaited reassignments that never materialized.

Rivera added that she believes Harvard has a responsibility to take care of its subcontracted employees.

“The COVID-19 crisis underscores the urgency for those with power to take care of more vulnerable community members,” Rivera wrote. “Harvard must give back to the Security Officers who have kept the university safe for years, and must not abandon them during this difficult moment.”

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at davit.antonyan@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

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