Issam Elrhanifi stood in the quiet Quincy dining hall, staring down at the sheet in his hands.
It was the week of March 29. For the past seven days Elrhanifi had been working as usual, circumstances he hoped would change. The COVID-19 pandemic had changed his family situation drastically. Elrhanifi could not continue to work as Harvard had expected him to.
That day, Elrhanifi went to his manager at Quincy to inform him that he planned to stay home. Given the turbulence wrought by the pandemic, and Harvard’s recent agreement to continue paying employees at dining halls which had closed through May, Elrhanifi said he was optimistic. He hoped that once he explained his family circumstances, his manager would understand and they could come to a solution together. Instead, Elrhanifi received a sheet of paper.
The paper outlined Harvard’s policy for emergency time off during the pandemic. It informed Elrhanifi that in order to sustain pay, he would have to spend his remaining sick days and vacation time.
As he held the sheet in his hands, Elrhanifi realized what Harvard’s policy would mean for him.
Elrhanifi had no sick days left. He had used the last of his vacation time during spring break. He would enter “sick leave debt” on the following work day. In 14 days, Harvard would stop paying him.
Two weeks earlier, on the morning of March 10, Harvard students were told to leave campus. HUDS employees received a different message.
“You should expect to report to work as normal unless told otherwise by your manager following spring break.”
Elrhanifi’s childrens’ school closed the week of March 15; Quincy Dining Hall remained open. While College students left campus in droves, Elrhanifi was expected back at Quincy. With both parents at work, who was to take care of their two young daughters? Because of the pandemic, daycare and babysitters were not an option. The family decided Mr. Elrhanifi had no choice but to stay home.
The following week was spring break. Though Quincy remained open, Elrhanifi used his annually allotted vacation time to stay home as planned. Had he known about the policies Harvard would soon institute, perhaps he would have made a different choice. But Elhranifi had no way of knowing just how valuable his vacation days would soon become.
The one sided print-out he received would soon become Harvard’s staple response to requests for time off at the Harvard dining halls and among custodial workers.
The letter begins, “You have indicated that you either have an underlying health risk or are concerned that you are exposing at risk dependents if you continue to work.”
It goes on to lay out “the University’s enhanced workplace policies”: To receive payment, those who choose to stay home can first use any remaining sick time. The “negative sick leave” policy allows employees to use up to 14 unearned sick days, which will be deducted from final paychecks should the employees not be able to “rebuild their accrued sick time.” If employees choose not to enter into this debt, or should they exhaust the allotted sick days, they can use remaining vacation days to keep getting paid.
Elrhanifi had already used his allotted number of sick days for the year and spent his final vacation time on spring break. All that stood between Elrhanifi and unpaid leave was two weeks of borrowed time.
When Harvard sent its students home, by and large, life on campus ground to a halt. But a few students remain — as well as the essential workers needed to support them. For these employees, the newfound stillness of Harvard brings its own challenges. Even as the University advised staff members to practice social distancing and an abundance of caution at work, employees say they struggle to follow these new guidelines when faced with the reality of small kitchens and a lack of personal protective equipment.
As employees who worked at closed dining halls were placed on paid leave, those who are required to work as usual are forced to make a hard decision. At-risk individuals may request to stay home — but it comes at a cost.
For Elrhanifi, the policy means either staying home to care for his daughters, or collecting his paycheck.
Business As Usual
For some Harvard employees still required to report for on-campus work, public transportation is the only option available. Every morning and evening, these staff members ride buses and trains to work. Omika D. Napit, a general service employee at Lowell, describes the atmosphere of her daily commute. “The bus used to be almost full with people before, but now there are only three to four people on the bus,” she wrote in an email.
Mostafa Oubtrou, a general cook in Quincy House, adds his own experience: “I have to take the train to get to the job. So my risk starts when I wake up. I’m scared,” he says. “I can’t keep doing that.”
Other employees who have tried to avoid public transportation at all costs face a different risk. Ted, a Lowell dining hall worker who requested that his name be withheld for fear of retaliation from HUDS management, faces a unique dilemma when it comes to his commute. Fearful of contracting the virus on public transportation and spreading it to his family and co-workers, he has driven to and from work every day over the past few weeks; however, he does not have his full license and thus could face legal ramifications.
Ted, who is East-Asian, also is wary of public transportation for a different reason — overt racism. He says a fellow East-Asian co-worker’s experience on the T increased his reluctance to take public transport: “People were trying not to go close to her and saying to her ‘please go away’ and all that… She wants to stay home rather than come to work but she is not sure she is going to get paid,” he explains. “She does not have enough sick time or vacation.”
No matter the commute, all scheduled staff are required to appear at work as per usual.
Though students woke up to clear instructions directing their exodus from campus, dining staff didn’t learn what their future would be like until that afternoon.
“This is how Harvard works I guess,” Ted says. “They are not going to tell you everything about everything, they are just going to go step-by-step,”
For Ted, the email addressed to “Team HUDS” brought confusion rather than clarity. “They said that all dining hall employees had to come. And if we didn’t come, would we get paid? I don’t know.”
While students relished their final moments on campus in advance of spring break, dining hall workers wondered whether their jobs would survive the week — and what they would look like if they did.
For HUDS workers like Ted, extended periods of uncertainty characterized the transition from dining halls brimming with students to a landscape of deserted dorm rooms. Soon this perceived lack of clarity gave way to what some see as a lack of caution.
Lowell would remain open after spring break — and Ted was expected back. Though his work routine resumed, he worried the Lowell House kitchens didn’t seem to match the evolving gravity of the pandemic beyond the house gates.
Harvard kept the Quincy, Eliot and Kirkland, Lowell, and Adams House kitchens open for undergraduates who remain on campus, and the Cabot and Pforzheimer kitchen open for graduate students. At these dining halls, meal procedures have been altered to protect staff and students from infection. While HUDS employees prepare food as usual in the kitchens, students receive their meals in pre-made to-go bags and students are kept six feet apart by strips of tape on the floor.
But for some, these measures don’t go far enough. Each day when he arrives at work, Ted confronts what he sees as a disconnect between health recommendations heard on the news and the reality for workers in the Lowell dining hall.
The conditions of food preparation have remained largely unchanged. Beyond new CDC-issued signs on handwashing procedures, workers operate much the same as they did when feeding thousands of students.
“[There has been] no training at all, just verbal guidance like washing hands frequently, keeping distance,” says Jaime Ayala, a general cook at Lowell House. He holds serious concerns about the feasibility of the new guidance, however.
For Rachel A. Herman, another general cook in Lowell, the subterranean architecture of the dining hall’s kitchen makes it difficult to stay far enough apart from her coworkers. “There really is no way to do social distancing,” she says. Recalling that the house was first built in 1930, she says that the tight space of the kitchens “is like a dungeon.”
Oubtrou says the same. “There is no way in the kitchen you can stand six feet away from each other,” he says. “That makes no sense.”
To complicate matters further, the University has not provided any dining hall workers with extra personal protective equipment. “They are telling us that masks are not necessary, but options,” Ted explains. “We can bring our masks from home but they are not going to purchase any masks for us.” On April 3, the CDC recommended that all people should wear protective masks when leaving their homes.
“I asked them ‘what are you doing to safeguard the food and the people that are working? How are people using social distance at 6 feet?” Herman recalls. “My boss won’t answer me.”
Crista Martin, a HUDS spokesperson, declined to comment on the record on the safety concerns raised by dining hall employees. According to Martin, HUDS currently serves the more than 450 remaining on campus. The workers who staff their dining halls are considered essential.
Empty tables and bagged meals are not the only changes that have occured at Harvard dining halls. Many say a new and intense fear permeates corridors and kitchens, signifying that, contrary to Harvard’s emails, things are not back to business as usual.
“A lot of people do not show symptoms, so we might come in thinking that we are fine,” Ted explains. “We might contaminate the staff and the dining hall. But we have to come in.”
A few days after the rooms of Quincy House had been evacuated and silence had settled into its empty halls, Kimwana L. Devonish, a general cook who had worked at Harvard for 16 years, returned home to unsettling news. The conversation he had with his wife that evening was one he’d feared for weeks. Their family, his wife told him, had been exposed to the virus.
His wife is a nurse at Boston Medical Center. Each day, as Devonish went back to work in the Quincy dining hall, the number of patients seeking treatment for COVID-19 at Boston Medical Center increased. After a few days, the inevitable occurred.
Ms. Devonish had been in contact with a patient with the coronavirus and was ordered into immediate self-isolation at home. As Ms. Devonish began her quarantine, her husband realized the danger of his own presence at Quincy.
Devonish knew he had to tell his manager. Surely, he reasoned, his manager would encourage him to remain home to keep the virus from entering the cramped Quincy kitchen.
Devonish made his case: “‘Look, I don’t know if I should be here,” he recalls saying. “I don’t think I should be here no more, because I don’t want to risk none of the other employees that are working with me.’”
He was surprised by the response he received. “If I don’t have the symptoms, I have to come to work. Because my name is on the schedule.”
Devonish was given the same print-out that Elrhanifi received when he indicated his need to remain at home. “Basically he told me, if you want to go home, you can use your sick time,” Devonish recalls. “And then, when your sick time runs out, you can use your vacation time.”
Mostafa Oubtrou — facing different risks — received the same response. “I am high risk, my family, I have three kids, I have my mother. I don’t want to end up getting everybody sick,” he says, explaining why he too requested time off.
Oubtrou’s mother, who lives with his family, has asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol — putting her at high risk for the virus. Oubtrou has three children, two of whom have returned from college, placing an extra financial strain on the family. He is over 60 years old, putting him at an elevated risk for serious health complications as a result of the coronavirus.
Oubtrou, like Devonish and Elrhanifi, spoke to a Harvard manager about his concerns and requested to stay home. They spoke over the phone — the manager had been working from home since campus shut down.
At first, things seemed promising: “Stay with your family,” Oubtrou recalls being told. “That’s your choice; stay home.” But then came the catch: “She told me that you’ve got to use your sick days. Then I said okay, so I have only four left. Then she told me, after that, you can use your vacation time.”
Oubtrou had four sick days remaining. The rest had been spent earlier in the year caring for his sick mother, the same person he was hoping to protect by staying home.
Oubtrou felt as if he was drowning. “What do they think? How am I going to pay my bills?” His stored time-off provided little hope. “I don’t even have too many sick days, you know — I have only four left.”
Oubtrou has worked at Harvard for 26 years. As a result, he has been able to accrue the benefits afforded to long-term employees, including four weeks of vacation time. He can use these benefits to ensure his payment for the next month.
“I don’t want to have to use [my vacation days] for this situation,” he says. “I want to use them for a vacation with my kids.”
But if Oubtrou wants to stay home to protect his family, he has no other choice.
“What Are You Going to Do With the Money?”
For Herman, the choice was simple: “What’s the point of having a paycheck you can’t spend because you’re dead?”
Rachel Herman has worked at Harvard for more than two decades. But after her managers denied her vacation request, she immediately began to think about what might happen to her if she continued. Mentioning studies that demonstrate that older individuals are more likely to die from the virus, Herman worries that she could be risking her life by continuing her tenure. “Guess what? I’m going to be 62 this year. I don’t want to go to work,” she explains. So she went home, choosing to spend her benefits.
Faced with the dilemma presented by the University’s new policies, Devonish decided to accept whatever Harvard imposed. He says he was not willing to endanger his friends and co-workers. He told his manager, “Whatever I have, just use it. I don’t even care, I just want to get out of here, because I don’t wanna hurt nobody.”
“I don’t want to think about none of my friends or none of my fellow workers dying because I came to work,” Devonish explains.
Devonish says he believes Harvard’s policies do not reflect the gravity of the situation. “They were still trying to be sturdy and strong and say: ‘This is what we say, this is what you’re going to do,’” he recalls. “And it’s kind of like, no, this is a crisis. You can’t be like that. You have to work with people.”
Devonish feels a lack of empathy from Harvard, which seems to disregard his long tenure at the University. “I was really upset at Harvard because, you know, it was 16 years of my life. For them to treat people the way they’re treating people, it’s really sad.”
Devonish has not returned to work since Monday, March 23 — soon after his wife was exposed to the virus. His wife has completed her quarantine and returned to work at Boston Medical Center. She is being tested regularly for coronavirus. Devonish spends his days at home with his seven-year-old son and his mother-in-law. He is approaching the end of his allotted sick days and will soon begin to spend his vacation time.
Oubtrou also made the decision to stay home despite Harvard’s policies. “If you have family, after somebody gets sick, what are you going to do with the money?” he asks. “It’s going to be too late.”
Before he stopped working, Oubtrou would take the T to Harvard each morning, where he worked all day in close quarters with fellow employees, before boarding the T once more to return to his family. This routine became unacceptable. “I’m going to stop. You know, it doesn’t matter. My family comes first,” he decided.
Oubtrou has already exhausted his four sick days and is currently in his second of four weeks of “vacation.” He will begin to go unpaid at the end of April.
Part-time workers like Elrhanifi receive even less paid time off.
When he received the piece of paper informing him of the paid leave policies, Elrhanifi had no remaining sick days or vacation time. Harvard wanted him to spend his benefits. He had none. His only option was borrowed time — two weeks of “sick leave debt” that had to be repaid to the University. When that time elapsed, his name would still appear on the Harvard dining services’ roster. Even though Harvard would not be paying Elrhanifi, they would still claim him as an employee, making him ineligible for unemployment benefits.
Oubtrou, Herman, Devonish, and Elrhanifi are all choosing to stay home regardless of Harvard’s policies, they say, in order to protect themselves, their families, and their co-workers. Harvard’s policies, then, act not as deterrents from leaving work, but as costs workers must pay to keep themselves and their families safe.
“We don’t have no choice,” Oubtrou says. “But it’s not right.”
— Magazine staff writer Malaika K. Tapper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @malaika_tapper.
— Magazine staff writer Garrett W. O’Brien can be reached at garrett.o’email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GarrettObrien17.