At 6:00 a.m. yesterday morning, nine subcontracted custodians tried to clock in for work at Harvard Medical School. Although their layoffs were effective last Friday, the custodians showed up for their normal shifts, ready to work, as part of staged protest.
More than 25 Harvard undergraduates, law students, medical students, and union members escorted the workers through the back entrance to Gordon Hall where they were met by security and administrators who told the protestors that they had three to four minutes to exit the building.
“We’re from American Cleaning, and we want to work,” custodial workers told an administrator sitting behind a sign-in desk.
American Cleaning Company—a subcontracted cleaning service that has worked with Harvard for the past year—was told by University officials in February that working hours would be significantly cut, which has translated into company layoffs.
Alyssa M. Aguilera ’08-09, a member of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement who participated in the protest, said that the Harvard layoffs have occurred in decentralized chunks.
Aguilera added that there has to be a priority that is more important than Harvard’s endowment.
“These are not just notches on a budget, these are people’s lives and families,” she said.
After the workers had attempted to clock in, they retreated to a basement hallway. There, protestors held hands and presented the laid off workers with bread and roses which they said represented livelihood and dignity, respectively.
“We are one community,” said Daniel B. Becker, an organizer for Service Employees International Union Local 615, which represents custodial workers at Harvard. “We are with you, and you are with us.”
After the ceremony, Robert E. Christiano, the associate director of campus operations at HMS, escorted the protestors out of the building.
Benjamin J. Oldfield, a medical student, said that he and other students will continue to fight to reemploy the workers.
“Harvard says it has trimmed all the fat and the layoffs are a last resort,” Oldfield said. “This is something that, as students, is hard to reconcile with the excesses we see on campus.”
Ana Guevara, one of the laid off workers, said through a translator that she has no plans for future employment through American Cleaning. She has not heard from the company since she received a letter terminating her employment.
Guevara said her work as a housekeeper was her only source of revenue.
“Without [my job], I don’t have anything,” she said through a translator. “I have my rent, car insurance, regular bills for me and my family.”
Guevara said that she had been studying to get her GED through a bridge program with Harvard, but because she will no longer be affiliated with the University, she will have to leave the program after this semester.
Reina Coto, another laid off worker, said that American Cleaning Company sent mixed messages about its plans for layoffs.
According to Coto, the company mentioned that people would be laid off, but a week later told Coto she could stay. Two days later, she said, the president of the company told her he had made a mistake because there was another worker with more seniority.
“I feel like they are playing with our feelings,” she said through an interpreter.
The layoffs were especially frustrating for Coto because many workers had gone above and beyond their normal duties, she said. Occasionally workers would cover two or three extra floors when other workers were absent—sometimes with extra pay, sometimes without.
Richard M. Shea, the associate dean for Physical Planning and Facilities at HMS, said he had never heard that workers had not been paid for their work.
“I would expect people to be paid for that,” he said. “I would not expect people to work for free.”
Shea said that HMS is still trying to figure out ways to help American Cleaning redeploy its workers. He said that there have not been any definite plans for future layoffs, and that future decisions are will be contingent on the University-wide early retirement packages and other budgetary decisions.
—Staff writer Laura G. Mirviss can be reached at email@example.com.