When Christina M. Tedesco received word about the pay cut last fall, her first reaction was, “Oh my God, I have to call my coworker Mark.”
Many of her colleagues at the Harvard Art Museums, where Tedesco works as an attendant, do not have computers or cannot access their work emails from home. She had to call them to break the news: Harvard had decided to cut their wages — already the lowest of any union at the University — by 30 percent, and she wasn’t sure for how long museum employees would continue to be paid at all.
Soon afterward, panic set in. “It’s very unsettling to not know if you really have a job or not, if the museum is going to lay you off in a few months,” Tedesco says. “It creates a constant environment of anxiety.”
In November 2020, Harvard modified its emergency excused absence policy, reducing pay for directly hired workers involuntarily idled by the pandemic to 70 percent and cutting pay entirely for idled workers hired through outside contractors.
In light of this announcement, we wanted to examine how this pay cut would affect Harvard’s workers — not just on a surface level, but how it might fundamentally shift lives. We followed one museum attendant, one custodian, and two dining workers over the course of three months, conducting interviews on a weekly basis. They detailed the challenges they’ve faced making rent, caring for family, and combating the virus itself while receiving frustratingly little communication from the University.
But they also described how they’ve been meeting their personal goals and starting their own ventures. They have been painting, playing soccer, practicing their faith, and baking. These four workers shared their lives with us, and although financial precarity and the pandemic have touched each of them, the pay cut is far from the only reason why these stories need telling.
by Sophia S. Liang
Christina M. Tedesco paints in bright swaths of primary color — red seesaws, golden sandboxes, blue skies with wispy clouds. But the human figures on her playgrounds are white, faceless silhouettes. They waver on the hopscotch tiles and tilt too far backwards on the swing. They play alone.
As a child at the playground herself, Tedesco was confronted with her body’s limitations. Her cerebral palsy made it difficult for her to use the equipment, and the other kids never stayed to play with her for long. When they looked at her, they saw only her disability; when she thought of herself, she sensed only what she lacked.
“I really believe that’s where the lessons about social class begin,” Tedesco, now 42, says. “You have the kids who can scoot across the monkey bars, no problem, and then you have the kid who’s hanging out on the side, not doing too much.”
Tedesco began her first playground sketches over two years ago. She trained herself to draw them in two-point perspective, a technique her dyslexia made challenging. During the pandemic, she devoted hundreds of hours to working with Sharpie and gouache in her Somerville studio the size of a walk-in closet. At the end of March, “The Playground Project” debuted at Gallery 263 in Cambridge, her first-ever solo exhibition.
“It’s showed me that all the hard work of changing the way I paint has paid off,” she says. “All the applying to shows and not getting them has paid off.”
The triumph, however, is bittersweet. Tedesco has been idled from her job as an attendant at the Harvard Art Museums for the past year, and the time she now has free to spend in her studio comes at a great cost.
The Harvard University Security, Parking, and Museum Guards Union, to which Tedesco belongs, represents the lowest-paid workforce at Harvard. Prior to the pandemic, Tedesco worked 37.5 hours a week and took home just $475.60. She tried to work two to eight hours of overtime each week to make ends meet, and she and her coworkers would collectively agree to allocate overtime shifts based on who had the most pressing financial needs.
“Lots of times we [would] talk to one another and be like, ‘Okay, I really need to pick up this shift, but you need to pick up that shift because you have a kid,’ and we’d coordinate,” Tedesco recalls.
Harvard’s 30 percent pay cut for idled workers that went into effect in January, she says, disproportionately harms those who were making so little already. Tedesco has accrued enough vacation time in six years of working at the museum to temporarily compensate for the reduced pay, and she still has benefits. But she has begun anxiously reconsidering how many groceries she can afford to buy and turning down the thermostat in her apartment to lower her heating bill. Her 60-year-old coworker had to move in with roommates.
Tedesco has lived in the same apartment for 18 years. Her home has easy access to a grocery store and public transportation, and her close-knit community of neighbors is willing to help her change the batteries in her smoke detector, assemble furniture, and drive her to the hospital in case of emergency. She would lose this support network if, unable to pay rent, she was forced to move.
Last December, she attended a virtual forum hosted by the mayor of Somerville to discuss how the city’s artists were faring during the pandemic. When she was asked to speak about her financial situation, she ended up in tears.
“It’s really embarrassing to admit that I’m poor, because I don’t think of myself as poor,” Tedesco says. “But financially, I am.”
When she shares her story, people are shocked to hear who her employer is. A city official who attended graduate school at Harvard was “absolutely horrified” when she found out not only that Tedesco’s pay was being cut, but how low it was to begin with.
“She kept pressing me, wanting to know how I’m living off of that,” Tedesco says. Tedesco didn’t know what to tell her — how do you explain how you subsist on barely minimum wage at the wealthiest university in the world?
For Tedesco, the pay cut feeds into a more general frustration with feeling degraded at work. She has overheard visitors muttering, “She’s so disabled” as they walk away. One woman, upon seeing her cane, told her, “It’s so great that you have this job; you can practice how to walk.”
Amongst other museum employees, Tedesco senses that they see her as “just a security guard.” According to her, the museum attendants are forbidden from talking about the art to visitors, no matter how knowledgeable they may be. When attendants apply for other jobs within the museum, it seems to her that they are never called for an interview. And they are made to stand all day, “which makes it feel like people in power think we’re not worthy enough to sit or have accommodations,” Tedesco says. University spokesperson Jason A. Newton and Art Museums spokesperson Jennifer A. Aubin both declined to comment on these concerns.
“How disheartening and sad is that?” Tedesco continues. “I work at Harvard, this prestigious university, somewhere with a lot of emails going on about ‘equality’ and all that. But the truth is, there is no equality.”
When Tedesco entered Landmark College in Vermont, she wanted to become a journalist, either a news anchor or a war correspondent. But all the spots in the American literature course she’d planned to take had already been filled, so she was forced to take Photography 101 instead, which she was “not at all happy about.” By the second class, her professor had inspired her to change her trajectory.
“He was so passionate to teach students about his passion, and I thought it was really cool that he could do something he loved and hang out in the darkroom all day, listening to music,” she says. “By the time my photo had developed, I’d changed my major in my head and decided I would get an MFA.”
Tedesco went on to earn a BFA from the Art Institute of Boston and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, branching out to drawing and painting along the way. Her work draws on her experiences with cerebral palsy, centering on themes of balance, control, and movement through time and space.
A few weeks ago, a Gallery 263 employee interviewed Tedesco to commemorate the opening of her show. When the interviewer asked whether she sees her art as a form of activism, she hesitated.
“My parents, who were both teachers, would say I had to educate people about my cerebral palsy, and in that respect, I feel like my whole life is about advocacy,” she later tells me, recounting the interview. “It’s so ingrained in who I am, I just don’t even think about it.”
Once a year, as part of a Harvard Medical School course, Tedesco volunteers to help first- and second-year medical students learn how to give neurological exams. As the students practice on her, she lets them in on the tricks she uses to pass the exams.
“I’ve taken this test a million times,” she says, chuckling. “I know it inside and out. And they come in with their worksheets and their medical equipment, and it’s clear that they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Tedesco is also a guest speaker at Brookline Public Schools, where she talks to students about living with a disability and her career as an artist.
“Kids are great because they have no filter,” she says — they don’t tiptoe around their questions or assume the answers, sometimes outright asking, “Why do you talk so funny?”
Additionally, Tedesco is one of the founding members of Divergents, a magazine that “sets out to change the dynamic of how society views individuals with learning disabilities,” she says. Her former college English professor pitched the idea to her in December 2019, and she accepted on Christmas Day. As Art Editor, she solicits submissions, pairs art with articles, and interviews neurodivergent artists from all over the world. The magazine has published three issues so far during the pandemic.
Growing up, Tedesco says, there were few public conversations about cerebral palsy. Although her parents were extremely supportive, she did not have anyone who could educate her about her disability.
“My parents and I had to learn together,” she says. “The attitude was, ‘Yes, Christina has CP. So what? We’re going to get her the help she needs, but we’re not going to treat her any differently.’”
Tedesco remembers being constantly shuttled by her parents from occupational therapy to physical therapy to school, even in the summer. She was in a self-contained classroom in elementary school, learning in a more intimate setting alongside other students with special needs or difficulties. By seventh grade, she entered into a fully mainstream learning environment. She was the first person in her school district to make the transition and had to leave behind her close friends in the process.
“It was heartbreaking,” she says. “I wanted so much to be like all the other kids, to do what they did. But at the same time, I was leaving behind two people that I’d gone through nursery school to sixth grade with.”
She tears up as she recalls all this, then smiles sadly. “I’m sorry I’m crying; this happened thirty-odd years ago,” she says. “But at the time, I didn’t understand why [they] couldn’t be in my classes.”
Tedesco continues to grapple with how her cerebral palsy and dyslexia intersect with her identity, and she questions how “mainstream” she actually is. She is “not disabled enough” to qualify for disability benefits, yet she does not fully fit into many parts of the world, from her childhood playground to her current workplace.
In January, Tedesco applied for rental assistance through the state’s Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, and her application was approved after two months spent navigating heaps of paperwork and red tape. The full cost of her rent will be covered until September, momentarily easing her largest financial burden. Still, she hesitates to accept the help.
“There’s a part of me that feels guilty about taking that,” she says, “because I’m so damn determined to be just like everyone else.”
It has been over a year since Tedesco stepped foot in the Harvard Art Museums.
She misses her regular visitors dearly, especially Girard, a 94-year-old man who came for lunch every Wednesday and shared his knowledge about art; Eunice, a museum donor who would tell her about her trips to Paris; and Corey, the once-toddler who must have grown into a little boy attending kindergarten by now.
Nonetheless, Tedesco is relieved to have gotten some distance from the museum.
“Even though the past year has been traumatic for me and a lot of [others], it has also given me time to decide what I really want in life and revisit my values,” she says.
Quarantine reinvigorated Tedesco’s love for writing through her interviews and articles for Divergents. It gave her more time to pursue her horticulture hobby; she owns over 40 plants, including ferns, spider plants, and a palm tree she’s had since the age of seven. It brought about the exhibition of “The Playground Project,” which she hopes to eventually translate into sculptures on a real playground.
Above all else, Tedesco says, the pandemic showed her what a life of not being “just a museum attendant” looks like. It opened up the possibility of growing the magazine into a full-time career instead of relying on Harvard to pay the bills, and it revealed to her how much she is capable of accomplishing on her own.
“I value myself more,” she says.
As a child at the playground, Tedesco saw only her body’s limitations. These days, she intentionally slows her pace as she walks to the bus stop, pausing to observe the shadows on the pavement and the wisps of clouds in the sky. She soaks up all the complexities of the spaces she inhabits, and she paints brushstrokes in her mind.
Who You Don't See on the Night Shift
by Meimei Xu
The night shift at Harvard Business School is peaceful. You start at 11 p.m. You see no one on the job, besides your supervisor. You won’t come back to a place you’ve just cleaned to find it messy again after an hour. You leave your work at 7 a.m., just as students and professors start filing into their classrooms and offices. You’ll need to become nocturnal, but for the most part, no one asks you any intrusive questions at work because there’s no one around to bother you.
This was the life of Harvard Business School custodian Paula G. Martinez for three years — until Jan. 21, 2021, her last day working on campus before she was involuntarily idled because of the pandemic.
She now receives 70 percent of her usual paycheck. Martinez is not directly employed by HBS, but by an outside contractor named C&W Janitorial Services.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m still getting a paycheck, and it’s awesome,” Martinez says. “But it’s not what I want. I want to work, and I want to get my full 40 hours.”
Harvard’s emergency excused absence policy had supported full pay and benefits for all directly-employed and some contracted workers at the University if they were sent home by the pandemic, but on Nov. 12, 2020, Harvard announced a change. From Jan. 15 onward, idled directly-employed staff would experience a 30 percent pay cut, and idled contracted workers, like Martinez, would receive no pay at all.
HBS was one of the first schools, starting on Jan. 24, to match the direct-hire policy for contracted workers as well, before staff, unions, and activists rallied for other schools to pay their contracted workers. Seventeen out of the approximately 45 overnight custodians at HBS were idled involuntarily because of the pandemic, according to Martinez.
Luckily, Martinez says, she found a part-time position as a custodian at Boston College, working from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., five days a week. Her contract with Boston College lasts until May. “I’ve been thankful that I have my part time, because definitely [my Harvard pay] was not going to be enough to cover my rent and my bills,” Martinez says.
Not only does she provide for her own needs, but she supports two parents who no longer work. “I feel the difference in my economic weekly income, but I think there’s some people out there, they have it worse than I do,” Martinez says. She says she saved enough to pay rent two months in advance. “But I can tell you that I’m struggling right now to help my parents.”
She’s been filling out applications for other positions, such as work at Harvard Medical School and MIT, but she says she sometimes doesn’t apply — she either lacks the experience necessary, or the salary is not worth the distance she would need to travel to get to work. Martinez says she doesn’t know whether she will still have a position at HBS after June, when the 70 percent idled pay policy ends.
“I don’t know if we’re going to keep being hired for [HBS],” Martinez says. “If not, I’m going to look for a full time, because I cannot be hopeful for that job. I mean I love it, I like it, and it’s good pay, but I cannot be hopeful for the rest of the year to see if I can get back there.”
When Martinez was 14 years old, she wanted to go to school. She was born in El Salvador to a family of nine, and at the time, all the money her brother and sister in the U.S. were sending over was going toward her mother’s heart problem, and the family couldn’t pay for Martinez’s education anymore.
That same year, two more of her sisters decided to move from El Salvador to America.
“My parents were raised on the belief that if you were a girl, you weren’t allowed to go out as much as the boys were, and I wanted to feel the freedom, and I wanted to go to school,” Martinez says. Her parents were against it, but she followed her sisters nonetheless.
She and her sisters walked for about two weeks to get to the United States and arrived as she turned 15. Martinez went to high school in Rhode Island and lived with her sister and her brother-in-law there, all the while working at a Mexican restaurant six days a week and sending money to her parents in El Salvador, whose economic situation improved. After graduating with honors in 2009, she was unable to go to college because she didn’t have verification of U.S. citizenship or residency. “Everything stopped from there,” she says.
She was in a relationship at the time and moved to Boston with her boyfriend, but they soon split up. She began working in a restaurant kitchen in Boston, which improved her English rapidly: “I had to speak it or else I was going to get fired.” There, she learned to make salads and desserts and eventually became a sous chef. She ultimately left for C&W, but she often makes cakes for her friends to make some money on the side, including a blue Pokéball cake she showed me on her phone.
This was the version of her story she told me at the beginning of February, when we first started our calls.
But over the course of the next month, she revealed a fuller picture of that story.
She and her high-school boyfriend had planned to get married. Because the couple lacked Salvadoran papers, his dad bought them a house in El Salvador under his name, for which Martinez paid him back. The house and a car the couple later bought cost Martinez around $25,000 of her savings.
Two years later, Martinez found out that her boyfriend was having an affair. After they split, she asked about the house and the car. “He said, ‘You’re the one to choose to leave. So you have nothing,’” she recalls. “And I said okay, because at that point my pride was bigger than my will to fight.”
She ended up borrowing money from her sisters to rent a room. On Aug. 15, 2012, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services opened applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, under President Barack Obama. Because she had arrived in the U.S. before her 16th birthday and had since lived in the country continuously, completed high school, and accumulated no felony charges, she qualified for the DACA program. In order to apply for DACA, however, applicants needed to pay $465 in total fees, which meant Martinez had to borrow more money.
Though she often had to send money to her parents, she was eventually able to pay off her debts to her sister. Martinez says she believes she should take responsibility for what happened with her boyfriend. “I cannot say that I can blame anybody else because it was my choice to give that money, because I trusted somebody that really I shouldn’t trust to begin with,” she says.
In another call, Martinez explained the details of her immigration status. As a DACA recipient, Martinez needs to re-apply for the program every 18 months. The program offers protection for two years at a time, but Martinez needs to apply six months in advance because she needs employment authorization. She says many people believe that DACA recipients receive free work authorization and benefits, but that isn’t the case. “A lot of us, we just work and pay our taxes, and we pay for a work permit,” Martinez says. “Those things are not for free. And we have to prove that we are good citizens, too.”
She told me she believes it is important that people understand how precarious the process is: many recipients, she explains, worry their requests for DACA renewal will be rejected and they will lose their jobs. Additionally, the program itself has been in a precarious position over the past four years, caught between Trump administration orders to end it and court rulings to reinstate it.
“I think it’s important that we can get a word out that we are not here to steal anybody’s job,” she says. “We’re not here to be criminals. We’re not here just because we wanted to just colonize or take over. We’re just here because we want to do better, and we struggle, too.”
Despite her various struggles, Martinez often talks about her luck in life. When she and her sisters were crossing the border into the U.S., she says she saw and heard that others had lost family members, lacked food and water, and faced dire situations. “We also heard stories that some people lost their legs because they were trying to get into a train,” Martinez says. “There’s girls that got violated every day with the guys that were bringing them. Some people that had at least four days without eating or drinking or anything.”
She and her sisters also walked for more than a day without water, but she says she luckily encountered people in Mexico who were willing to help them. For the economic benefits of being in the U.S., she says the decision to come “was worth it.” But for the people whose stories she heard along the way?
“I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s worth it at the end for those people,” she says.
At the beginning of February, Martinez was just adjusting from working overnight at HBS to working in the afternoons at Boston College. “My sleeping is crazy,” she told me at the time. “I can’t sleep because I was used to sleeping during the day, and now I get headaches in the day.” Though it’s not as quiet and peaceful as her previous overnight shift, she says she likes working at Boston College. Sometimes people say hello, ask her if she’s new, say thank you, but “that’s pretty much it.” As a part-timer, she’s always on the move, cleaning different public areas. “It’s not like I’m staying in one place and I get asked a lot of questions,” she says.
It was different seven years ago. Back then, when she worked as a sous chef at a restaurant, she stayed in one place. “I used to see the same people,” Martinez says, “and sometimes it gets pretty awkward, because they like to ask you personal questions.” She felt the questions people asked her at the restaurant job were sometimes racist and discriminatory — questions like: Are you legal? Is your family legal? Are you a citizen?
Then, after explaining that she is neither a resident nor a citizen: Well, what are you?
That mostly stopped when she came to Harvard — her nighttime shifts were peaceful, her supervisor being the only other person around — but she recalls one similar instance while working overtime as a porter for executives arriving from overseas for a program at HBS.
“I was helping this very old gentleman once, and he asked me, ’Are you American?’ and I said ’Yes, I am an American.’ And he answered, ’You don’t seem like it,’ and I said, ’What do you mean I don’t seem like it?’”
The man asked if he could get an American to help him. “I said, ‘I’m sorry sir, but this is the most American help that you’re going to get here,’ because from my group, I was the one that speaks English the most,” she says.
Martinez told the man his “question was flawed.”
“I was like, ‘Well you asked me if I was from America, America is the whole continent,’” she recalls saying. “‘This is the United States of America, it’s a country, and America is the whole continent.’” After the man went to her boss and demanded someone else help him, her boss defended her, saying that most of his workers at HBS spoke Spanish.
In March, Martinez and her siblings began preparing for their parents to visit the United States. They decided to buy a trailer in California so their parents can live in the U.S. Because Martinez’s mother likes bright colors, they decided to paint it orange. Her parents are U.S. residents, but can only live in El Salvador for a few months at a time; sometimes, they visit Martinez’s brother in California, but this time they’re visiting her sisters in Rhode Island. Her parents intend to obtain citizenship in the future.
Her parents landed in New York on March 26. The background was full of joyful noise that day when I called her at her sister’s house in Rhode Island. She was baking a cake for her nephew’s baptism that Sunday and, lowering her voice, she told me she and her sisters were planning to surprise her mom with a birthday lunch.
In terms of future plans, Martinez says she hasn’t thought that far along yet. She asked for Monday off, but after that would need to drive back down to Boston to go back to work.
But the top priority at that moment, she said, was the Sunday birthday lunch: “Hopefully it turns out good.”
After a few weeks, she sent me pictures of her mother at the head of the table, with the family, all huddled around her, laughing.
Losing Overtime, Losing Family Time
by Meimei Xu
On March 17, 2021, as she was preparing to leave for her job as a dining employee at the Medical School, Blanca A. Iturralde saw a text from her brother sent at 12:31 a.m.: he had just tested positive for Covid-19. A day earlier, Iturralde saw him when she picked up her 13-year-old son, Nicco, from her parents’ house, where her brother lives on the first floor.
Iturralde says her son, upon hearing the news, began to cry. “He was just afraid,” she recalls. “He was like, ‘Mom, what if I am sick, or what if I get you sick?’” Their fears around Covid-19 had not come from nowhere — Nicco was afraid of contracting the virus, Iturralde says, because he remembered how bad his mother’s symptoms were when she contracted the virus one year earlier: after two months of illness, her doctor finally cleared her to resume normal activities in May 2020.
On the same day her brother told her the news, Iturralde kept Nicco at home and called his school to let them know her son had potentially been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus; per school policy, Nicco would have to stay home for at least 10 days. Iturralde had taken a test on Tuesday, the day she saw her brother last; they had very little contact, she says, the test came back negative on Wednesday. She also did not show any symptoms. Nonetheless, she took the precaution of calling her manager at Harvard Medical School, where she works as a contracted dining employee employed by Restaurant Associates. After she explained to her manager the brief contact she had with her brother, the manager told her to monitor her symptoms and return to work.
Since coming back to campus last August, Iturralde has worked from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., five days a week. She has 15 sick days per year and vacation time, but given that her shift lasts throughout the day, she has to use her sick days for regular doctor’s appointments. She worries that, if she or Nicco got sick, she would have to take two weeks of leave and use summer vacation time to supplement her pay.
“I do worry now, with the way the schedule is using my sick days and then having to — if we were to get sick or he were to get sick — having to use those days in the summer,” she says. “I can’t miss no days of work, because I have no days.”
Per school policy, Nicco only attends school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays; for the rest of the week, he stays with his grandparents or home alone for short periods. Because Iturralde’s brother lives in an apartment on the first floor of the house, her brother was able to avoid potentially exposing his parents to the virus. The week her brother tested positive for Covid-19, Iturralde told Nicco to keep his distance from his grandparents, as well.
The train ride home from HMS takes one hour; Iturralde says she had to hurry to get home to Nicco — especially since she wasn’t sure if he had contracted the virus or not. “I’m always rushing, just because obviously I don't feel comfortable leaving him for long periods of time,” she says.
Within the next few days her son said he felt sick, and Iturralde knew there could be a multiple-day delay between contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus and testing positive for it. She and her son got tested again on March 21. Iturralde wanted to get him tested one more time on the following Saturday, March 27, to be certain. Negative again. Nicco went back to school on March 29.
Iturralde’s brother took two weeks off work; he’s mostly recovered, though his taste has not returned. No one else in the family has tested positive. Iturralde and her son are now more or less back in their normal schedules.
Iturralde would like to go to church every weekend. Sometimes, she says, she gets “caught up in the everyday,” but she prays every night. Born in Mexico and raised mostly in Boston as the oldest of four siblings, Iturralde says her parents are Catholic, but not extremely devout.
When she got infected with Covid-19 in March 2020, her perspective on faith shifted. “I remember the moments when I was really, really sick and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this could possibly be it,’” she says. To this day, she still suffers from some stomach pain when she eats, and her sense of taste has changed. “I can’t drink orange juice because it tastes like soap,” she says. “I love french fries, [but] when I have french fries, I feel like I’m not tasting the fried stuff — I just taste the oil.”
Prior to contracting the virus, she recalls praying for a house and other material help; after getting sick with Covid, she began to see that health affected every other aspect of her life. She says she began to see her experience as God’s way of teaching a lesson to her. “I sometimes tell people, I think one of the best things that happened to me was getting sick because I was able to explore more my faith,” she says.
Before coming to HMS, Iturralde worked at Harvard Law School, mostly in catering, for about four years. In 2018, after being guaranteed a full 40 hours at HMS, she transferred to the Medical School, first as a caterer, then as a cashier at Courtyard Café. Now, she works at Aliquots Café in the New Research Building.
Iturralde hasn’t always worked in dining services. After getting pregnant and marrying while in community college, she dropped out and began taking early childhood education courses to become certified as a teacher. Afterward, she worked in a daycare for around four years, and later worked at a Montessori school.
She ended up separating from her husband, and though she enjoyed working at the Montessori school, the pay ultimately fell short a few dollars an hour of what Harvard would pay her. “The only reason why I left is just because, obviously, money,” she says. “Money is tight. By then, obviously I had separated from my husband at the time, and it was harder to just make ends meet.”
Iturralde says she enjoyed the hands-on activities at the Montessori school. “I would sometimes tell people like it's so funny, what my hands can do,” she says. Normally she wouldn’t be able to draw on command, but when she got in the zone, she says, “I was able to make things that were incredible.” Still, Iturralde says she’s “comfortable” with her work at the café.
“Sometimes I tell people it's like similar jobs, just different age groups,” she says. “Like before, I would take care of babies, now I take care of grownups.”
Iturralde says she is inspired by the social movements started by the people around her, such as the No Layoffs campaign, which planned a call-in and write-in in January 2021 to demand that HMS administrators guarantee no layoffs for its workers during the pandemic. The Medical School announced on the 21st of that month that it would not lay off dining services workers at this time; nevertheless, the No Layoffs campaign still hosted the call-in to demand guaranteed pay for workers if they were involuntarily idled in the future.
HMS spokesperson Laura DeCoste wrote in an emailed statement that “our dining services management team has been committed to the direct and transparent training of and communication with our contract dining workers” throughout the pandemic.
According to Iturralde, Gabriel H. Bayard ’15, an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 26 representing dining services employees at Harvard, asked her to help with spreading the word when it was unclear whether HMS workers would be laid off or idled. “I like getting my co-workers involved and talking to them and telling them, ‘We have to fight for this,’ or, ‘We have to fight for that,’” she says.
In the future, Iturralde says she wants to continue helping people — she’d like to go back to school, but remains uncertain about what she wants to study and where she would obtain the resources needed. “‘What would I study? Where would I get the money?’” she says. “Sometimes I feel like maybe I sabotaged my own happiness just because I always think of like, ‘Where am I going to do this? From where?’ So, I don’t know.”
Work at Aliquots has been slow, Iturralde says. The employees there recently started making a special item at the café every week; one week, they made eight containers of apple fritters, but ended up only selling four.
Since she came back to work, there hasn’t been any overtime, which would usually help her save up to pay electricity and water bills. During a normal school year, Nicco has football practice in the afternoons on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so Iturralde would work overtime either Monday or Friday. During the summer, he had practice Monday through Thursday, and she worked overtime on Friday. It wasn’t a lot, but she says the extra money in her paycheck mattered. “Now, I do see the difference,” she says. “I received my W-2, and this year I made $5,000 less than I did last year.”
In addition, she and her son are home more often, which means they’re using more utilities at home. “Whatever you are able to save, now you’re gonna have to pick at it,” she says. “I have to find my way to get a little extra money because when things do get better, it can take a while for me to go back to that stability.”
She says she tries to only use her three-week summer vacation time to travel with her son to different places, such as Six Flags, Maine, New Hampshire, and Atlanta to visit family. Three years ago, they spent a week-and-a-half at Disney World for his 10th birthday.
Being able to spend time with family is important to her, Iturralde says. In addition to her newfound appreciation for everyday life after her experience with Covid-19, Iturralde says she has felt more grateful for her family as she gets older.
“They are so valuable,” she says. “I have to see them every day, even if it’s through the phone or whatever, they are everything to me, my family. It’s just like I always say, somebody else maybe doesn’t have a family and I do, so therefore I'm lucky.”
During the summer, Iturralde dropped her son off with her parents in the early morning before her 6:30 a.m. shift. If she wasn’t working overtime, when she got home at 3 p.m. she would be able to take Nicco to the park or to get ice cream. This summer, given her 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. shift, Iturralde anticipates that she’ll have less time to spend with her son.
“I feel like this might be a tough summer, because if I leave him at nine or eight something, and I won't be home till seven o’clock, what really can we do?” she says. “The day’s over.”
“Reach for the Stars”
by Cara J. Chang
Juan S. Cardenas-Duque always knew he wanted to study at Harvard.
Even when he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2015, he was determined to get a degree from Harvard Extension School. But if he wanted to achieve that goal, Cardenas-Duque, 24, knew he needed either money or a “hook up.” He got the latter, a job with Harvard University Dining Services as a dishwasher, in the fall of 2016.
“I got in with just 16 hours [a week] working in the dishroom washing pots, working very difficult jobs,” he recalls. “At that point it was just about getting my foot in the door.”
As a HUDS employee, if he worked enough hours, Cardenas-Duque could potentially qualify for financial support for undergraduate and graduate courses at the Extension School. Four months later, Cardenas-Duque got a new dishwashing job for HUDS with more hours and started taking Harvard courses on top of his biology courseload at UMass Boston.
Now, five years later, Cardenas-Duque is in his penultimate semester of a Master’s program in business management at the Extension School.
Cardenas-Duque’s last day of work at Harvard was March 17, 2020. At the time, he was a waiter at the Heights, the bar and restaurant on the 10th floor of the Smith Campus Center.
While his Harvard job has been on hold, Cardenas-Duque is far from idle: He is the founder and owner of Boston Temporary Tattoos, a start-up he launched in 2016 armed only with an idea, a website, and a $100 loan from his girlfriend.
“The idea was I wanted tattoos, but not forever,” Cardenas-Duque says. Today, customers can choose from over 100,000 tattoo designs or customize their own online, and Cardenas-Duque ships them their orders nationwide.
Because of concerns over job prospects, social stigma, and family culture, he hesitated to get permanent ink. The first temporary tattoo Cardenas-Duque wore was a design of a clock his mother ordered him as a surprise gift.
The name for the tattoo’s design, “Tick Tock,” feels fitting to Cardenas-Duque, who says that the app TikTok boosted his business this past year. Last summer, he released a promotional video on TikTok “just for fun.”
“And boom!” he says. “Sales boomed up to $2,000 in one day, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, what did I just do? Did I just access something? Am I on the way to something?’”
Cardenas-Duque’s next video garnered another million views. Ever since, he has actively used social media to grow Boston Temporary Tattoos. Over the past year, business has reached almost $15,000 in monthly sales.
“That’s something I never would’ve thought possible,” Cardenas-Duque confesses.
On top of Boston Temporary Tattoos, Cardenas-Duque is a co-founder of Boston Street Soccer, a group that organizes casual pick-up games and tournaments. He is focusing on expanding the group’s social media presence and networking.
Unlike Boston Temporary Tattoos, Boston Street Soccer came to a screeching halt when the pandemic first hit. The group stopped all games for a few months. Cardenas-Duque also stopped going to the gym for eight months, terrified of catching the virus. But he’s since adapted to the “new normal,” as he calls it, and is back in the gym and on the field.
“You gotta take care of yourself, stay distanced from others, and make sure you’re not touching your face with dirty hands,” he says. “I work out every single day. It’s part of my lifestyle now.”
Over the past year, Cardenas-Duque has settled into a routine: He starts his day around 7 a.m. with a black coffee and alternates between online classes, working out, spending time with family, and running Boston Temporary Tattoos and Boston Street Soccer.
“Every day varies depending on what life brings, but most of it I try to center around fitness, health, and wealth,” he says.
As for his work at Harvard, Cardenas-Duque remains in limbo. In November 2020, Harvard modified its emergency excused absence pay policy, cutting Cardenas-Duque’s pay to 70 percent. Then, in December, HUDS announced it would close four facilities, including the Heights. Cardenas-Duque learned he’d get a chance to “bump” into a new role: HUDS would offer workers laid off by the December announcement the chance to shift into another job based on seniority. There are two pathways for doing this. Affected workers could either claim vacant positions or “bump” more junior members out of their positions. Cardenas-Duque would have to wait until more senior colleagues successfully bumped into new positions.
Cardenas-Duque sees the bumping process as an opportunity. By next fall, he will have a business degree from the Harvard Extension School, in addition to a bachelor’s degree in biology from UMass Boston and a smoothly running business. He hopes to move out of entry-level positions at HUDS and into either a research technician or management role.
“When they do reach out, I’m going to reach for the stars,” Cardenas-Duque told me when he was waiting for the bumping process to begin. “I’m not really going to try to stick to the same plan that I’ve been doing for the last five years.”
Cardenas-Duque was born in Colombia. His grandparents were the first in his family to arrive in the United States in the late 1990s after winning a lottery, eventually bringing over Cardenas-Duque’s mother. His mother then brought him to Massachusetts when he was a toddler. His father, however, elected to stay in Colombia with two of Cardenas-Duque’s younger siblings. Cardenas-Duque now lives with his mother, her husband, and one of his younger sisters in Revere, Mass.
When he was a teenager, his grandparents and his mother started opening up about why they left Colombia: His uncle was murdered months after he was born and, when he was a baby, Cardenas-Duque himself was kidnapped for ransom.
“As a young guy, you don’t really know the benefits of migrating to a place like this,” Cardenas-Duque reflects. “Then, as you grow up, you start seeing the reality of why things were like this ... and just being really grateful for the fact that we’re here.”
When he was in sixth grade, Cardenas-Duque’s mother switched him from a public school to the Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett. He went from classrooms with more than 30 students to ones half that size. At Pioneer, his teachers could better tailor his learning to him — although at the time, he didn’t understand the benefits, given the added workload and stricter rules.
“When I was in the system, I really thought that this was a terrible idea, that my life sucked,” Cardenas-Duque admits. But since, “I realized, ‘You know what? I’m pretty damn lucky I went to the school, because I entered a college system where [other] people were really struggling with the science.’”
On one hand, Pioneer sparked Cardenas-Duque’s love of biology. On the other, he is not sure where his drive to entrepreneurship comes from.
“When I was younger, I would find different ways to make some side money, just to go out with friends or get some ice cream, go to the movies, or go bowling and not have to worry about asking my mom for $20 all the time,” he remembers. “I didn’t really understand that this was a strength of mine until my sophomore year of college.”
While at UMass Boston, Cardenas-Duque realized he wanted to study business, and perhaps even open one of his own, but he wanted to finish his biology degree first.
In 2019, Cardenas-Duque enrolled as a business masters student at the Harvard Extension School. His days were packed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: He’d take the train to Harvard, work at the Heights from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., work out at the Malkin Athletic Center, then go back to the Smith Campus Center to study and attend classes online before going home at 7 p.m. Cardenas-Duque then turned his attention to Boston Temporary Tattoos.
“Looking back, I don’t really know how I did it,” he says. “It’s a lot of things to balance as an individual, as a student, that many people do not see.”
In early February, I mentioned to Cardenas-Duque that he sounded hoarse, and all he said was that he was “sick.” But later in our conversation, he added, “I feel like I’m a caged bird… I can’t go out. I can’t go out to a restaurant. I can’t go out into the street. I can’t buy my own groceries.”
It took another week for Cardenas-Duque to confide in me that, several days before he described feeling like “a caged bird,” he had woken up with a “massive pain” in his back. He lost part of his senses of taste and smell. He was short of breath, coughing, feverish, chilly, and aching. Quarantining in his room, Cardenas-Duque felt suffocated.
Cardenas-Duque still went to class, but he could not staff Boston Temporary Tattoos on his own. He asked his sister to help him with tattoo orders and he put off marketing and networking. As Cardenas-Duque recovered, he wondered how his sickness would impact his income and future employment prospects. His paycheck from Harvard had been reduced just a few weeks prior. He even started tapping into savings he had set aside for his first home.
Financial insecurity, uncertainty about his health, and fear of Covid-based discrimination — initially he wasn’t sure if he wanted to share his illness publicly — compounded as his body fought the virus. Cardenas-Duque felt helpless.
After isolating for 10 days, he tested negative for Covid-19. The result, he says, was “liberating.”
“I feel great. I feel alive,” he beams, grateful to have made a full recovery.
A few weeks after his negative test, Cardenas-Duque changed his mind about sharing his bout with Covid-19, once his best friend told him, “‘If you had it and it’s okay, you shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. If you ever wanted to share that, then go for it.’”
Cardenas-Duque was reassured. “Just having an extra talk with my friends and family just made me realize, ‘Yeah, I’m actually okay with talking about that or sharing it with the public,” he says.
In late March, Cardenas-Duque and his girlfriend both received their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine. “Mentally I feel strong,” he said two days later. With one more dose, Covid-19 will be behind him: he’ll be able to travel and go back to work at Harvard without being vulnerable to infection.
In the last week of March, it was finally Cardenas-Duque’s turn to move into a new position. He selected a vacant lead pantry steward position, which has a higher classification than his current job as a waiter in general service. The full-time lead position pays more and fits with Cardenas-Duque’s schedule.
However, the bumping process asks employees to select positions with their current job classification or lower. Cardenas-Duque knows the lead position requires a higher classification, but believes he has a strong case for it.
“Having almost seven years in hospitality, five years at Harvard, and three years of being a union steward and, on top of that, as a graduate student in a management degree program, I am strongly qualified to work this position,” Cardenas-Duque says. He also knows colleagues who went from waitstaff to lead positions in previous bumping processes.
When HUDS management told him it would “not make any exceptions” to job classifications, Cardenas-Duque laughed in disbelief.
“And then I just felt really bad,” he remembers. “I felt like I was being shut down and I feel like I’ve been continuously shut down and shut down and shut down again.”
Cardenas-Duque filed a grievance over job discrimination. The dining workers’ contract states that, during a bumping process, “the University and the Union may consider alternatives such as voluntary layoff or open vacancies.” Under that clause, Cardenas-Duque and his union, UNITE HERE Local 26, argue that HUDS can offer him the lead position — and should, given his resume.
“I’m trying to move up the ladder,” Cardenas-Duque says. “I’m proving that I can do it. I’m setting the bar high, but then once you get to that level, boom! ‘No.’ Why?”
Cardenas-Duque stresses his gratitude to Harvard for his education, but says he will not settle on this case. “If I don’t advance at Harvard, unfortunately I would have to just leave, because I’m not washing dishes and plates for the rest of my life, or for any longer,” he says.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton said it is the University’s policy not to comment on individual cases.
As Cardenas-Duque waits for the grievance to be resolved, he’s eyeing broader goals: He will earn his Master’s degree this year. He’s on schedule to open a Boston Temporary Tattoos pop-up shop in Boston by summer 2022. He’s researching plans to open an indoor sports facility for Boston Street Soccer. He’s working on producing his own music.
“Thankfully I’m in a position where I don’t have to really be concerned about the income from Harvard, whereas I used to be,” Cardenas-Duque says. “I want to travel some more. I want to experience life some more, and I don’t want to be in a position where I’m stuck.”
— Crimson staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.
— Associate Magazine Editor Sophia S. Liang can be reached at email@example.com. Follower her on Twitter @totalPHIAsco.
— Magazine staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meimeixu7.