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Grad Union Alleges Harvard Asked to Suspend Bargaining Due to COVID-19 Challenges; Univ. Denies Claim

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Harvard’s graduate student union is alleging that administrators have asked to suspend ongoing contract negotiations while the University reevaluates its financial situation due to the novel coronavirus pandemic — a claim that Harvard denies.

Harvard Graduate Students-Union bargaining committee member Ege Yumusak ’15 wrote in an email to members Friday morning that the University requested to suspend bargaining for three to four weeks.

“The administration said they need to re-evaluate the University’s finances in the next 3-4 weeks and suspend all bargaining in the meantime,” Yumusak wrote.

“The administration says that when there is more clarity about their finances, they will resume bargaining,” she added.

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University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain called the union’s allegation “inaccurate” in an emailed statement Friday. He wrote that Harvard has not suspended bargaining, even as it continues to monitor the ongoing COVID-19 emergency and its impacts on the University.

“It is inaccurate to say that the University has suspended negotiations, and it’s disappointing that HGSU-UAW members are creating this misleading impression,” Swain wrote. “The University, including members of its bargaining team, have and continue to make the safety and wellbeing of every member of the Harvard community the top priority as we work to manage the impacts of this unprecedented public health emergency and meet the academic commitment we have to all of our students.”

Yumusak wrote that the bargaining team believes the University has neglected the needs of student workers amid the coronavirus pandemic, adding they are “truly disappointed” in the move.

“Not only do student workers have urgent needs in the midst of a crisis, but there are several articles on the table that are not about financial needs, such as critical protections against harassment and discrimination,” Yumusak wrote.

The email comes a day after the two parties’ first virtual negotiation session since Harvard closed most operations to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. Yumusak’s email also updated union members about that meeting, during which she wrote they did not reach any new agreements.

The two parties attempted to negotiate a workload provision but did not ultimately come to a consensus, according to the email.

Yumusak also wrote that the union — which launched a “COVID-19 Impact Survey” this month — unsuccessfully pushed for changes to members’ medical benefits during the session, given the coronavirus crisis. Harvard has waived limits on specialist and mental health visits through July 31, but declined to extend the policy past that date on Thursday, according to Yumusak.

“The administration declined to immediately extend this improved health coverage past that date—even though the social and health effects of this pandemic will be felt well beyond this summer,” she wrote. “In addition, the administration once again refused to agree to provide any paid family or medical leave to student workers, characterizing 4 weeks of leave for a student worker’s serious medical condition or to care for a sick family member as too generous.”

Swain further added that the University remains committed to continuing bargaining sessions in the future and engaging in negotiations virtually.

“The University is also working with the mediator and the union to confirm a date for a bargaining session in April, and the two parties are free to exchange proposals through email in the meantime,” Swain wrote.

Yumusak also said the bargaining committee disapproves of the fact that the University has laid off workers, failed to provide adequate safety protections for custodians, and not committed to pay guarantees for undergraduates staffing the Harvard Summer School programs, in transitioning to remote classes.

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

—Staff writer Callia A. Chuang can be reached at callia.chuang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @calliaachuang.

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