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LAST SPRING, the University changed a long-standing policy of offering unemployment benefits to University workers during the three-month summer lay off period. Instead, the University began to offer its employees temporary jobs to tide them over the summer months. On the surface, this change might appear like a generous attempt to offer workers full summer salaries instead of the lesser unemployment benefits.
Yet it became clear last summer that the University's first priority was to escape the cost of the benefits by offering unattractive late night and part-time work. Last summer, when six College Dining Hall employees refused temporary jobs, the University denied them the unemployment benefits they had received in the past. The six workers have since made three appeals to the Massachusetts Employment Security Division (MESD) in an attempt to force Harvard to pay the denied benefits.
The callousness of the University's dealings with these employees became striking two weeks ago when the workers took their cases before two officers on the MESD Board of Review Examiners in the third and last possible stage of the appeal procedure. Five of the employees, all women, explained that they had turned down the temporary jobs offered them because the jobs would have involved working the "graveyard shift," between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Several of these women testified that they live outside of Cambridge, must use public transportation to reach Harvard, and fear coming in and out of the Square alone at night.
In responding to the five women's testimony, a Ropes and Gray lawyer representing the University attempted to undermine a Massachusetts statute that protects the right of "female employees" to opt for unemployment rather than work between midnight and six in the morning. The Harvard lawyer argued that the statute is discriminatory, which indeed it is. Yet Harvard's contention that the MESD should therefore dismiss the statute as unconstitutional, when no state or federal law court has handed down a decision on the matter, overlooks the genuine human problems that caused the women to refuse the "graveyard shift" jobs.
The MESD hearing also brought out the possibility that Harvard used the new policy to punish Sylvia Gallagher, a shop steward in Eliot House, for union-related activities. Last spring, Gallagher led a noon-time walkout of members of Local 26 of the Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Employees Union for an emergency union meeting. When the University slapped Gallagher with a five-day suspension and docked her two hours pay, she filed a grievance against Harvard with the National Labor Relations Board. Several weeks later, Harvard offered Gallagher only a part-time summer job, that Gallagher's legal agent says could have downgraded her employment status.
Whether or not the MESD decides to force Harvard to award the unemployment benefits, the University must be condemned for its unfeeling and--in Gallagher's case--possibly vindictive treatment of its employees. It is unfortunate that in offering these workers undesirable jobs, and in trying to circumvent a statute that would back the employees up, the University has seen fit to hide behind legal technicalities that thinly mask a cold, calculated attempt to cut back on labor costs.
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