Under Worker and Student Pressure, Harvard Reverses Course and Agrees to Pay Dining, Custodial, and Other Workers During the COVID-19 Crisis

Harvard’s decision comes just days after the University threatened to lay off dining and custodial workers without pay, and follows a week of sustained student outcry.

Cambridge, MA — Last week, Harvard University threatened to lay off subcontracted workers without pay during the COVID-19 crisis. Today, Harvard reversed course and committed to paying the University’s workers, including contract dining and custodial employees, through the end of the semester.

Harvard promised about a week ago to pay workers directly employed by the University for at least 30 days. But many of the workers who keep Harvard running, including dining, catering, custodial, and gym staff, are subcontractors, and Harvard had previously refused to guarantee pay to most subcontracted campus workers . Last week, students led by the Labor and Employment Action Project (LEAP) at Harvard Law School launched a petition that gathered over 7,000 signatures, demanding that the University pay all campus workers until the end of the semester, arguing that the prior policy left too many workers behind. This morning, LEAP announced a “call-in” demanding that Harvard University agree to pay all campus workers who the University has threatened to lay off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers estimate that over a hundred students called or emailed University officials in just two hours.

“The woman who cleans the dorm that I live in was there to welcome me the very first day that I moved in two years ago. Fast forward and when I couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving she invited me to spend it with her own family. She has been the single most consistent source of genuine love, wisdom, and support for me at this school, and that isn’t an unusual relationship for many minority students in particular to have with the custodial and dining workers at Harvard,” said Erica Taicz-Blandón, a second-year student at Harvard Law School. “These workers, who are largely Black, Brown, and female, are no less an essential part of our campus community as the professors and administrators, who are largely white and male. We were proud to fight alongside them for the recognition and compensation they deserve.”

Harvard’s announcement today did not specifically mention subcontracted workers at campus gyms, only contract employees in dining, custodial, and security roles. However, Harvard’s Wage and Benefits Parity Policy requires all subcontracted vendor employees to receive wages “equal to those paid to Harvard employees in the corresponding service sector,” as well as the “same benefits and paid time off as Harvard employees in the corresponding service sector.”

“Harvard’s endowment was over $40 billion last year. We can afford to do right by the workers who make our community run,” said Sejal Singh, a third-year law student. “That means paid leave through the COVID-19 crisis for every worker, and not just for 30 days — we know the crisis may last a lot longer.”

“Our communities must come together to support one another through this crisis,” said Jon Levitan, a first-year law student. “We’re happy that Harvard has done the right thing – now it’s on every university around the country to follow suit and support workers who care for these communities.”

If you are a subcontracted worker at Harvard or know of Harvard workers not included in this policy update, please get in touch at labor@mail.law.harvard.edu.