Contracted Workers Face Alleged Disparities in Treatment, Privileges

From early morning duties to late night shifts, staff at Harvard maintain the dining halls, provide custodial services, and work to keep the campus secure. While many of these workers are directly employed by the University, thousands of them are actually employed by independent companies, which work on contract for Harvard.

On paper, the same rules apply to both contracted workers and University employees, but some contracted workers—who may even work side by side with Harvard employees—say that they face unequal working conditions.

One of Harvard’s most recognizable contractors is Securitas Security Services USA, Inc., a company that provides security guards across campus. Others include Unicco, which provides custodial workers, and Sodexo, which offers catering services. Because of their contracted status, workers at these companies often straddle the line between being members of the Harvard staff and being outsiders.

One Securitas officer, when asked whether she felt as if she were treated differently than a direct Harvard employee, simply responded, “Yes.” She spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about angering her supervisors.

Eight other contracted workers declined to comment for this story, many saying that they were prohibited from speaking with reporters.

Still, union leaders and workers who did grant interviews say that despite comparable compensation between contract workers and Harvard employees, contracted workers often do not receive the same non-wage benefits as full employees. Furthermore, confusion regarding the supervision of contracted workers and contracting companies’ incentives to maintain positive relations with Harvard can allegedly lead to unexpected worker transfers, shift changes, and what some call a problematic grievance process.

EQUALITY ON PAPER

Under current University policy, contracted workers are entitled to the same wages as Harvard employees in similar positions, but some say that the problem of equalizing non-wage benefits and treatment, such as membership to certain discount programs, remains.

When the Securitas contract was renegotiated for an additional three years in 2012 after a prolonged discussion about benefits, Securitas workers and their union, SEIU Local 615, argued that they deserved the same compensationthrough benefits as well as wagesas direct Harvard employees. This dispute came ten years after Harvard instituted the Wage Benefit and Parity Policy, which was intended to solve the problem of wage discrepancies, according to Tania deLuzuriaga, a senior Harvard communications officer, in mid-December.

The WBPP “seeks to ensure that contracted custodial, retail dining and security service workers at Harvard receive total compensation comparable to that offered to corresponding University employees,” deLuzuriaga wrote in an earlier email in November.

But some union leaders and workers say that the policy’s scope is limited, leaving room for a disparity in how unions are able to address workers’ complaints.

Wayne M. Langley, director of higher education for SEIU Local 615, said in November that the WBPP clarified and equalized certain explicit articles of the contractarticles that generate grievances that the union is already able to resolve quickly. But, Langley said, complaints that the union receives mostly pertain to a category known as “management rights,” which includes transfers, shift switches, and other complaints not explicitly addressed in the workers’ contract or in the WBPP.

TRANSFER TROUBLES

The ambiguity of “management rights” allows for a variety of gaps between Harvard employees and contracted workers in labor relations and treatment, such as worker transfers and shift assignments, which contracted employees do not have the infrastructure to protest against, Langley said. These “management rights” allow supervisors to make workplace decisions at their own discretion, according to union officials Langley and Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union for Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents more than 4,000 Harvard employees.

While it is possible for employees in all sectors at Harvard to be transferred, Langley said that when contracted workers are transferred, employers do not need to state a reason, and employees cannot appeal most transfers.

Two contracted workers both said that they had been transferred by Securitas management during their time at Harvard. Both Securitas officers added that they know many colleagues who have suffered from what they call punitive transfers, although almost a dozen workers approached declined to comment on personal experiences.

Aryt Alasti, a Securitas worker, also said that he and many of his colleagues have allegedly experienced what he called a “non-disciplinary transfer” to another facility. According to Alasti, if an in-house worker was transferred without reason, there are many stages of appeal they could go through. For contracted workers, however, Alasti said “there is no recourse.”

“The management has the right to transfer people for operational necessity,” Langley said. “[But] sometimes employers transfer people as punishment.... It might be a more isolated location. It might be night shift versus day shift.”

The anonymous Securitas officer referenced earlier described a personal incidence of unfair targeting when she began working at Harvard.

“[The newly hired security manager] went out of his way to try to catch me using a cell phone or not doing my job or whatever reason they have to get rid of you, move you,” she said in a November interview. Furthermore, she alleged that the conflict continued when her manager received a complaint from a Harvard affiliate whose identification she had checked.

She said that she was transferred that night to a different and “less desirable” location on Harvard’s campus.

‘NO RECOURSE’

The complaint of the anonymous Securitas worker, Langley said, is not unusual, but because those complaints are not related to a worker’s employment contract, there is often little that the worker and the union can do in response.

Instead, for all employees, officially filed grievances must relate to a violation of certain articles of their employment contract, such as stipulations related to vacation, medical insurance, or wages, not management rights, which concern the employer’s actions outside of the contract.

Langley said that most officially filed grievances are resolved quickly because they relate to explicit portions of the contract.

For other complaints, he said that SEIU Local 615 does its best to petition Securitas management about worker issues, whether or not they are labeled as official grievances. With transfers that the union suspects are punitive, Langley said that the union requires a letter from Securitas stating why the contracted employee was moved or, if applicable, a statement from an involved Harvard affiliate. Both Langley and Jaeger said that if they discover a trend of transferring employees of the same gender or race, they can bring that information to Harvard and start an investigation.

Since these complaints are not officially filed, the union does not track their exact frequency, according to Langley. However, Langley said that the number of official grievances is far fewer than the number of total complaints. At a point in mid-November, Langley said that SEIU Local 615 was addressing twelve ongoing grievances and many more complaints.

Alasti said that he has heard stories of contract workers being passed up for positions which they were qualified for in terms of capability and experience—a case in which an in-house employee would have grounds to appeal.

“But due to a whim,” he said, “which is all you can call it, with the facility manager involved, they were denied that position.”

Alasti said that he and his colleagues would not be able to file an official grievance with Securitas, but could only file an informal complaint to the company which he described as a less effective option. Of the process for contract workers, Alasti said, “that’s the end of it.”

Moreover, Alasti said that employees often feel that the risks of voicing their concerns may outweigh the benefits.

“It's not worthwhile for our people to be making targets of themselves,” he said.

When contract workers have conflicts of personality with their Harvard supervisors, the management of companies like Securitas are more likely to transfer the employee without pressing for further information from the supervisor. According to union leaders, this is a result of their desire to maintain a positive working relationship with their client, Harvard. This dynamic does not exist for direct employees of Harvard, resulting in a less complicated employee-supervisor relationship.

When contacted about appeals and complaints processes, the Harvard Human Resources Department referred requests for comment to Harvard Public Affairs and Communications. DeLuzuriaga released a statement emphasizing that negotiations are handled by the direct employer, not Harvard, writing in January that “the vast majority of contract employees are represented by collective bargaining units, who negotiate contracts covering the terms and conditions of employment with their employer, not Harvard.“

Thomas R. Fagan, Vice President of Human Resources and Administration at the Securitas Northeast office, declined to comment for this story, saying that he could not discuss “client-specific matters.”

Economics professor Richard B. Freeman, who is also the faculty co-director of the Labor and Worklife Program at the Law School, said in December that workers’ difficulty in airing complaints with Harvard is indicative of the University shifting responsibility to its contractors, even though contracted employees work on campus and are sometimes overseen by Harvard’s management.

“Basically, Harvard doesn’t want to talk to anybody about anything…. They’ll say, ‘this is not our business, these are not our employees,’” he said.

‘EVERYBODY PASSES THE BUCK’

Contracted workers also find themselves excluded from many non-monetary benefits, such as access to Harvard facilities and discounts on travel costs, that University employees receive due to their affiliation with an institution with wide-reaching resources.

For example, Harvard’s CommuterChoice program aims to publicize “commuting information and planning services” for employees on their way to and from Harvard campuses by offering transit passes and up to 50 percent discounts on MBTA travel fares. Harvard affiliates are offered several discounts in Boston and Cambridge, but most, including the Hubway and Zipcar discounts, require a Harvard email address to register online.

According to Colin B. Durrant, a spokesperson from Harvard’s Office of Sustainability, individuals without Harvard email addresses can work with the Office of Sustainability to register for these programs, but they still must be “benefits-eligible faculty and staff paid directly by Harvard University.”

Alasti wrote in an email in December that outsourced workers do not have access to “a variety of housing, travel, [and] counseling” benefits.

“We don’t have access to libraries or gymnasiums, can’t purchase parking permits,” he wrote. “For us security guards, we’re officially not permitted to be in even the publically accessible Harvard buildings unless we are on duty or have ‘official business’ there.”

Freeman said that the discrepancy is made even more salient by the fact that “Harvard treats its workers well…. Of course there will be disputes, but workers are proud to work for Harvard.”

Yet when it comes to contracted workers, “Harvard washes its hands of any responsibility,” Freeman said, “everybody passes the buck.”

—Staff writer Caroline C. Hunsicker can be reached at carolinehunsicker@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @cchunsicker.

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