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Harvard Workers Got the Cold Shoulder This Winter

During what the New York Times called a "Winter from Hell," four blizzards dumped record amounts of snow on campus in the three weeks between January 27 and February 15. True to form, Harvard closed due to the inclement weather fewer times than other local universities. Harvard remained open on a number of days when it was unsafe or impossible for many employees to get to work. For example, the University was open on January 28, when Boston had a parking ban that wasn't lifted until 5 pm, Boston's public schools were closed, and plow drivers were reporting close calls with residents who were walking in the streets (due to sidewalks not being shoveled, etc.). WCVB reported a statement made by Gov. Charlie Baker '79 on January 27 that said “...Unless you have a reason to be out tonight or tomorrow after midnight, we would encourage you not to be."

Members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers were required to use vacation or personal days at times when they feared to report to work out of concern for their safety, for example on January 28. Parents faced particularly troubling choices when their children’s schools closed, yet they were expected to work their regular hours. One union member commented, “I’ve lost all my personal and vacation time. Now I have no extra time (not even sick time, because my kids were sick the week before the blizzard)... I don’t think I should lose my earned time because I have to make a decision about my safety and health..." Last year, a group of HUCTW members filed a grievance because they did not receive paid time off during a severe storm in February 2014, but were made to report to work or use vacation or other benefit time (the HUCTW contract says, “When a concern for safety makes travel inadvisable, a paid absence may be appropriate...”). Over a year later, that grievance remains largely unresolved, indicating that the HUCTW grievance process is not functioning effectively.

For security guards who work at Harvard, dual employees of the University and Securitas, and members of the Service Employees International Union, the situation has been even worse. Recently, when the University closed due to severe weather, guards who were scheduled to work report having gone unpaid. The past practice has been that when the University is closed due to inclement weather, and security guards are told not to work their scheduled shifts, they have still received their regular pay. This year, when the University closed on February 6, 9, and 10, at least some security guards went unpaid (the university also failed to pay security guards for work on January 2, after the Winter Recess was expanded to include that date). Guards have filed a union grievance over management’s failure to pay them what they’re owed; to date management has reportedly made no offer to resolve the grievance. Similarly, many campus workers who do not belong to labor unions have gone without pay when the University closed.

Dining Hall workers reported for duty even on days when the storms made it impossible to return to their homes for the night. Some dining Hall workers ended up sleeping on couches or mattresses on the floor, some even six to a room. Workers who were assigned hotel rooms weren’t always told they would be staying with another person, which made some uncomfortable. Workers report being issued taxi vouchers which were not always accepted (apparently one person walked to work in severe weather because of this). Some dining hall staff were told by managers to sign a list if they’d be willing to stay overnight in a hotel; but then after signing up were told there was no bed for them during one of the blizzards.

As the world’s richest university, with an endowment of roughly $36 billion, Harvard can afford to give its workers some paid time off during extreme, dangerous weather conditions, rather than expecting them to use up their vacation time, for example. Better accommodations for dining hall workers are certainly possible. To tell security guards not to report for their regular shifts when the University is closed, and then dock their pay, seems miserly and unfair.  President Drew Faust should use her considerable influence to award at least three additional personal days to members of HUCTW, and to confer a similar benefit on non-salaried workers who are not members of labor unions, and to pay SEIU members for all their regularly scheduled shifts when Havard has closed or will close due to inclement weather. Dining Hall workers who weren’t offered adequate accommodations during the blizzards should be compensated. Harvard can offer its employees, who work hard to make the institution function, more than a cold shoulder during emergency weather.

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Geoffrey P. Carens is a representative of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers and a delegate of the Industrial Workers of the World.

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