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UPDATED: Sept. 13, 2016, at 2:58 p.m.
Harvard University Dining Services workers are considering a strike if the University does not comply with their demands for an increased minimum salary and more affordable healthcare. Under the current healthcare plan, HUDS workers have a high deductible, but their co-pays are low enough that they often do not hit the deductible. HUDS workers pay $40 for emergency room medical care, and $15 or less for nearly every service.
Under Harvard’s new proposal, these co-pays would increase dramatically; an emergency room visit would rise from $40 to $100, and inpatient hospital services and outpatient surgeries would spike from no cost at all to $100. As a tradeoff, the University would eliminate deductibles. For workers who earn less than $35,000 a year without overtime pay, however, increased co-pays represent significant burdens. Therefore, HUDS employees and representatives from its union, Local 26, are calling for a $35,000 minimum salary for employees who work year-round and more affordable health benefits. Although the current benefits compare well with those offered by other private sector and food service employers, Harvard has the responsibility to lead on fair treatment for its lowest-paid employees.
Employees at HUDS work a taxing job for extended hours, and only earn on average $21.89 per hour. Since their work aligns with the academic calendar, they all do not work over school recesses, and often struggle to earn a living wage. In order to support their families, many are forced to find temporary work during January term or the summer. Given these circumstances, the changes that Harvard is proposing to their healthcare plan are neither moral nor sustainable.
It is unreasonable for Harvard to undervalue its employees in this manner, especially since HUDS workers play a critical role in building community among students on campus. In particular, the demographics of HUDS workers make students of color feel more welcome on campus. On a campus where members of the faculty and administration often do not reflect student diversity, students of color may feel more comfortable relating to the HUDS staff.
Therefore, HUDS workers’ contribution to Harvard goes beyond feeding hundreds of students, cleaning up after them, and maintaining order in the dining hall. They also help build and fortify the community and offer support to students. Harvard needs to recognize the important role—one that is not fungible—that HUDS workers play on campus, and compensate them accordingly.
We hope that Harvard and the HUDS workers can reach an agreement before Sept. 17, the expiration date of the union's contract with Harvard. Nevertheless, we will support HUDS and whatever course of action they pursue in this negotiation process. HUDS workers should not have to accept drastic cuts to their healthcare, or feel compelled to work overtime in order to earn a living wage. Therefore, we will support HUDS workers in a strike if Harvard does not make reasonable concessions.
If the HUDS workers are forced to strike, Harvard must ensure that all students are still well-fed. It goes without saying this responsibility entails some sort of satisfactory contingency plan, which is especially important for low-income students who would be particularly burdened by out-of-pocket expenses.
Nevertheless, we are rooting for a denouement before Sept. 17. Harvard would be considerably hamstrung without HUDS workers for any period of time, but if the workers are forced to strike as a last resort, we understand their decision.
CLARIFICATION: Sept. 13, 2016
The editorial was updated to clarify the fact that Harvard's healthcare proposal for Local 26 would eliminate deductibles in exchange for higher co-pays.
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