City Council Calls on Harvard To Keep Low-Wage Workers

The Cambridge City Council unanimously approved a resolution last Monday night asking Harvard and MIT not to lay off low-wage workers, following recent staff cuts and hours reductions by cleaning companies subcontracted by Harvard.

Some companies Harvard hires for cleaning services have announced layoffs in recent weeks, after the University asked some of those subcontractors to cut costs by 30 to 40 percent in response to projections of a 30 percent decline in Harvard’s endowment by the end of this fiscal year.

Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, who sponsored the resolution, said that she would propose another order next week that would give Harvard a “mini-stimulus package”—possibly by reducing Harvard’s payments in lieu of taxes to the City—to help cover the costs of reinstating the laid-off janitors and to force the University to reconsider whether the money saved by the cuts was substantial enough to justify the lost jobs. Regardless of whether Harvard accepts the “stimulus,” Decker said, such a gesture of aid from the City would hopefully shame Harvard into realizing how unnecessary and immoral low-wage worker cuts are in light of its overall fiscal scheme.

Decker said that the Council’s intervention was justified because laying off low-wage workers would likely burden the City and state’s homeless shelters, food pantries, and low-income housing services.

University spokesman John D. Longbrake said that Harvard understands its responsibilities as a major employer and recognizes that it depends heavily on its staff to fulfill its academic mission. He added that Harvard has “taken a series of steps to minimize the impact of the global economic downturn on the people who work here” by strictly limiting hiring, freezing salaries for non-union staff and faculty, and offering a voluntary early retirement incentive plan for 1,600 workers.

But since nearly half of Harvard’s $3.5 billion annual operating budget comes in the form of compensation costs, Longbrake said, “it is increasingly likely that Harvard, like many of our peer institutions and foundations across the country, will have to consider further changes to the size of its workforce in order to adjust to the new fiscal reality.”

But Decker said that Harvard and MIT should consider pay cuts for their highest paid employees rather than laying off low-wage workers such as janitors.

“Basically [Harvard and MIT] are saying ‘we are worried about the future of our endowment, so we are going to lay off workers who make between $16,000 and $30,000 a year,’” Decker said.

Bedardo Sola, a former subcontracted janitor who worked at Harvard, said in Spanish through a translator at the meeting that he was laid off on Mar. 13 from a job he had held for five years. His unemployment has left him without health insurance, he said, and as a result, surgery to correct his wife’s blindness will now cost him $5,000.

“I am here also to represent the many other workers who are under threat of layoffs, so that they never have to go through what we are going through now,” said Sola, who is represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 615. Wayne M. Langley, director of SEIU’s higher education division, said that his organization represents 1,500 employees at Harvard and MIT.

Other union members employed at Boston University and MIT also spoke at the meeting to argue that even in times of economic crisis, universities should be held to a higher standard when it comes to treatment of their low-wage employees.

Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, said that the City’s resolution was particularly timely since the window to accept the University’s early retirement package is closing and budget officials will likely be re-visiting their fiscal plans soon. HUCTW recently implemented a visibility campaign titled “Staff, Not Stuff” encouraging the University to focus on “slowing down and scaling back construction projects; reducing consulting, outside catering, and travel budgets; and investing in energy conservation and employee wellness,” rather than trimming staff.

“There are a lot of budget managers who seem to be doing a great job of putting people in programs first, and really cutting in non-personnel areas as much as possible,” Jaeger said. “But it’s still really important to put those priorities out there, and to be sure everybody’s thinking as hard as they can and feeling as much pressure as they ought...to take care of Harvard’s good people.”

But some councillors said they thought that layoffs are consistent with Harvard’s past behavior, and Councillor Tim Toomey said that the low-wage worker cuts are “just a continuation of how Harvard treats its employees.”

Councillors said they hoped to see Harvard and MIT representatives at the next Council meeting to defend the low-wage worker cuts in person.

—Staff writer Sarah J. Howland can be reached at showland@fas.harvard.edu

—Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at pzhu@fas.harvard.edu