Contracted dining workers at two Harvard schools received welcome news this week as Harvard Medical School announced it would not pursue 16 layoffs as planned, and Harvard Law School announced it would continue paying contracted dining employees and eventually bring them in-house.
The University reduced support for employees covered by its emergency excused absence policy, which had sustained pay and benefits for all employees whose work had been suspended due to the pandemic, on Jan. 15. Idled contracted employees could no longer receive pay and direct employees could receive up to 70 percent of their pay, though continued application of the original policy was up to each Harvard school.
The Law School announced last Friday that it will terminate its contract with Restaurant Associates, a national dining services firm, and transition its food services to Harvard University Dining Services when dining facilities reopen. In the meantime, approximately 50 idled Restaurant Associates employees will receive 70 percent of their salary until at least June 30.
Separately, the Medical School announced Thursday that it will not lay off workers from Restaurant Associates as it had planned. Last Friday, the school informed roughly half of its dining workers — 16 employees — that they would be laid off on Jan. 29, according to one of the affected employees, Ed W. Holbrook. Following the Medical School's reversal of its decision, those employees will continue to work for full pay, according to HMS spokesperson Laura DeCoste.
Both announcements come after months of advocacy by unions and supporters on behalf of contracted employees subject to the policy change, including a petition signed by more than 1,100 Harvard affiliates and a Jan. 14 rally to demand pay for idled contracted workers in the spring. Harvard Business School and the Graduate School of Education previously announced that they would continue to pay contracted custodians.
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal thanked Restaurant Associates in an emailed statement and wrote that the firm’s employees will be integrated into HUDS by order of seniority.
“When campus dining facilities eventually reopen, HUDS has agreed to offer positions for Harvard Law School facilities, in order of seniority, to as many affected RA employees as possible,” Neal wrote. “HUDS will also consider RA employees for open positions at other HUDS-operated dining facilities across the University.”
The Law School will have provided more than $5.7 million to its idled dining workers for 15 months of continuity pay by June 30, Neal added.
Restaurant Associates did not respond to a request for comment Friday morning.
DeCoste also wrote in an emailed statement that the Medical School is grateful to the Restaurant Associates employees for their “hard work and dedication over the past 10 months amid the challenges of the COVID pandemic.”
“Harvard Medical School does not intend to reduce staffing levels, hours, or pay for Restaurant Associates employees at this time,” she wrote.
While HMS will not lay off the employees as planned, it has not committed to extending Harvard’s emergency excused absence policy to its contracted workers, were they to be idled.
Workers and student activists said they are glad that the schools have decided to increase protections for contracted workers.
“I’m just glad Harvard decided to do the right thing, because if they didn’t, it would have left me in the most financial hardship that I’ve ever been through,” said Joey A. King, a Restaurant Associates employee at HMS and father of four.
Tascha Shahriari-Parsa, a member of the Law School student advocacy group Labor and Employment Action Project, said he is “ecstatic” the Law School decided to “do the right thing,” adding that the student group will continue to support Restaurant Associates employees during the transition.
“We’ll have to see how they actually negotiate their agreement with the workers going in HUDS and how that all plays out to make sure that there’s nothing lost in that process,” Shahriari-Parsa said. “But it would have been awful if the dining staff were laid off and didn’t have wages or the means to survive between now and June, so we’re happy that now they do.”
Eugene Van Buren, a Law School chef currently employed by Restaurant Associates, said the transition of employees into HUDS by seniority leaves a great deal of uncertainty for contracted dining hall workers at the Law School.
“Only thing that we know is that Restaurant Associates aren’t going to be responsible anymore, so that leaves us in limbo,” Van Buren said. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen. I honestly don’t know what being absorbed by HUDS means as far as our seniority, if we have to be moved away to another area. Right now we don’t know anything. It’s an uneasy feeling.”
Blanca A. Iturralde, a Restaurant Associates employee at the Medical School, said she and her co-workers felt “relieved” by the cancellation of the layoffs, since she and many of her colleagues rely on their positions at Harvard as their only sources of income.
“For tomorrow, I don’t have to worry about where I am going to find the means to provide for my family,” she said.
Still, Iturralde said she worries how long Harvard will continue to offer her a job.
Holbrook also said he was relieved at the news, but remains concerned for the long term.
“There’s no guarantee how long we’re going to be back to work,” he said.
In the interim, Holbrook said that Restaurant Associates employees at HMS are continuing to push for 70 percent pay if they are idled by the pandemic.
“We’re still going to continue to fight to get the guarantee of the 70 percent pay like all the other HUDS and RA employees are getting,” he said.
Molecular and Cellular Biology Ph.D. student Hasreet K. Gill is organizing an event on Jan. 25 to contact Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82 to secure 70 percent pay for workers should they be idled. Although HMS decided to rescind layoffs, the call-in event will still occur as planned, Gill wrote on Facebook.
“While this is a big victory, our call/write-in is STILL ON for Monday because the administration has not committed to paying people if there are future layoffs, as HLS and HBS has,” Gill wrote. “This still puts dining hall and custodial staff members at risk of job and health insurance loss.”
—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.
—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meimeixu7.