Anxiety didn’t disappear for everyone when students finished their exams before Christmas—in fact, for many employees of Harvard University Dining Services, it was only beginning. While students reveled during Harvard’s new five-week winter break, the dining halls closed one by one, leaving the staff essentially unemployed from the last week of December to the last week of January.
Harvard does allocate paid leave for the breaks in the academic calendar. The system is based on seniority; according to the existing contract, which is set to expire next June, HUDS employees accrue an annual three weeks of paid vacation after five years of continuous service, and every additional five years of continuous service results in another week of paid vacation every year. However, with the long-awaited arrival of J-Term, workers are forced to spread their paid vacation over not one but two lengthy breaks.
“I’ve been here for 35 years, and I have no vacation time left,” says Edward B. Childs, a cook in Adams House and the chief shop steward at HUDS for Unite Here, the union that represents the employees.
With fewer days of work, HUDS employees are more dependent than ever on second jobs. But due to the recession, layoffs are rolling across the restaurants, mail centers, and hotels that HUDS employees have come to rely on. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national leisure and hospitality industry has shrunk by approximately 500,000 employees since January 2008, and the total weekly hours worked by all employees dropped 7 percent over that same time period before experiencing slight gains last month.
Childs says that the unique combination of calendar reform and a struggling job market has taken its toll on HUDS employees. “We suspect that some will lose their homes, be evicted, and become homeless within the next year,” Childs says. Moreover, he predicts that the crisis will especially affect single mothers and the younger, inexperienced workers who haven’t earned many days of paid leave, both of whom make up a large part of the HUDS work force.
Of course, the HUDS contract has its advantages, in part because of the same bleakness of the current outside options. According to Johnny R. Montes, who has worked in Annenberg’s kitchen for 20 years, the “security of the job” was his favorite part of being hired by Harvard.
“We believe that Harvard provides a very comprehensive benefits package, which is part of the union bargaining agreement that is approved by the workers,” says Crista Martin, Director for Marketing and Communications for HUDS, when asked about the issue of paid vacation.
However, the current contract was signed in June 2006, almost a year before Harvard’s governing boards announced calendar reform for the 2009-2010 school year and 18 months before the beginning of the current recession as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “It’s drastically affected us. You’re talking about four weeks, no pay,” Childs says. “It’s put us behind in our rents and our savings for the summer time.”
With very little opportunity to get jobs outside Harvard, HUDS employees are scrambling to get second jobs at the university, which is also proving to be a challenge. “There’s no other thing that’s there for us,” Childs says of the alternatives. “They haven’t given us any safety net.”
In response to their struggling members, the union is more active than ever, making sure its members have access to food stamps and other services. But the ultimate goal is for more sustainable, long-term change; in short, the HUDS staff hopes that the University administration will re-assess the logistics of the new calendar. “Harvard should really give some money to hold us over until we come back after J-Term,” suggests Larry E. Houston, a shop steward at Annenberg. But Childs believes that the solution lies elsewhere.
“We’re telling Faust that we need jobs,” he says, softly pounding his fist on the table. “We’re literally looking to survive.”