MIT has agreed to extend the pay for dining hall workers who have been sidelined because of the coronavirus through May 22, a small victory for some of the lowest-wage employees on college campuses.
MIT announced this week that it had reached a deal with the union representing 225 dining hall workers and the university’s food service vendors, Bon Appetit and Restaurant Associates. MIT agreed to provide funding for the workers, who were slated to be laid off, after the university sent students home to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
MIT declined to say how much it spent to pay the workers through most of May, but it has also reached agreements with other subcontracted employees, including those who work at the institute’s fitness facilities.
The coronavirus has forced colleges and universities to scale back their operations and threatened to blow up their budgets. Many lower-wage employees, especially those who aren’t directly employed by the institutions, have borne the price.
At Boston-area colleges and universities cafeteria workers are often hired by private food service vendors, and many of them are being laid off as schools shut down their dormitories and dining halls.
At Harvard University and Northeastern University students have launched social media campaigns and online petitions urging the institutions to keep subcontracted cafeteria workers on the payroll instead of forcing them into unemployment. But some colleges have argued that the decision to lay off subcontracted employees is not necessarily theirs but rests with the companies that directly hire the workers.
That’s not entirely the case, said Carlos Aramayo, the incoming president of UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents more than 2,000 dining hall employees who work at Boston-area higher education institutions. The workers are providing services for the students and faculty on the campus, and the private vendors are an intermediary, said Aramayo.
The union hopes that the deal with MIT will put pressure on other schools to pay subcontracted workers during this abrupt shutdown, he said.
“We’re really happy we reached the agreement with MIT. It’s a breakthrough for these institutions taking responsibility for their workforce,” said Aramayo. “These institutions should do the right thing by their workers."
For Samuel Huertas, 28, a catering attendant at MIT’s business school, the university’s decision means one less burden for him.
“I don’t have to worry about my bills and worry about paying my rent,” said Huertas, who shares a home with his girlfriend.
At other colleges, unemployment and shrinking paychecks have left many employees frustrated.
At Northeastern, Herma Parham, 57, said dining service employees came to work one day last week and were told they were being laid off. They were given a gift bag with bread, potatoes, and onions, along with instructions on how to apply for unemployment, she said.
Parham, who worked as a full-time barista, said she tried to apply for unemployment, but struggled to get through the state’s online system. So, when Northeastern’s vendor, Chartwells, called her back over the weekend to work as a cashier, even though it was part-time, she jumped at the opportunity.
“It’s something versus nothing,” Parham said. “I’m one of the lucky ones who was called back.”
Chartwells has said it regrets the temporary layoff of workers, including at Northeastern, but had to adjust staffing after universities moved classes online and sent students home.
Northeastern officials said the matter is between the vendor and the workers.
“Our understanding is that the union worked together with the employer on the terms of the current layoffs,” said Renata Nyul, a Northeastern spokeswoman.
Local 26 officials, who represent 350 dining workers at Northeastern, said they were not consulted about the layoff.
Some universities are treating workers who are subcontracted differently from those they hire directly, even if they perform the same service, and it has created tensions.
Harvard has agreed to extend the pay for 30 days for dining hall workers it hires directly for its undergraduate campus. The dining workers at Harvard’s graduate schools, some 280 employees who are subcontractors, are covered only for two weeks of pay, said Eugene Van Buren, 51, a cook, at the Harvard Law School.
However, Harvard’s business school has agreed to extend the 30 days of pay to its subcontracted dining workers.
That isn’t fair, said Van Buren, who comes into a locked-down and near-empty building to prepare to-go sandwiches and hot-meals for the small cadre of international students who have remained at the law school.
Harvard is a wealthy school with a $41 billion endowment and should ensure that its workers aren’t laid off because of the public health crisis, worker advocates said.
“We should have parity, we’re all under the same contract, we’re doing the same things,” Van Buren said. “We’re providing a service to Harvard that these kids pay high rates for.”
Harvard officials said the university is reviewing pay for workers, including dining hall employees, custodians, and security personnel, hired by third-parties companies. It is a complicated enterprise, they point out, and the university is trying to develop a unified policy by the end of this week.
“The University is continuing to review how it can provide some financial support to these workers, as well, and anticipates a decision by the end of the week,” said Jonathan Swain, a Harvard spokesman.
Simmons University, too, said it is working with its partner companies to determine how to help subcontracted workers.
“While we have a variety of financial considerations to work through, we’re currently exploring options and resources we might be able to offer to help workers,” said Laura Wareck, a Simmons spokeswoman.