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UPDATED: Sept. 16, 2016, at 10:38 a.m.
Jackie Medeiros has been part of Harvard’s dining hall staff for 24 years—in her own words, since she “was the same age as the students I served.” In fact, working at Harvard runs in Jackie’s family. Her mother worked in the Adams Dining Hall until she retired, her sister works in the Lowell/Winthrop kitchen, and she met the father of her children in Leverett.
One of Jackie’s two sons struggles with anxiety and has been diagnosed with ADHD; at 11 years old, he already needs a weekly tutor and therapist to help him succeed in school and eventually attend college. Tutors and therapists are both necessary and prohibitively expensive—unless Harvard’s employee health insurance covers them. “I can’t afford changes to our health insurance,” Jackie says. “My child’s health and success depend on it.”
Harvard University Dining Service workers like Jackie have a lot at stake right now. Harvard has proposed shifting more healthcare costs onto workers who cannot afford this burden. They plan to raise co-pays for prescriptions, doctor visits, and even for critical tests and procedures. A slight reduction in premiums means that this new plan will save some workers money if they are young, single, and in perfect health. For most Harvard dining hall workers, however, these extra costs add up quickly and will make it punitively expensive to go to the doctor. One would hope that Harvard could come up with a more innovative approach than making workers like Jackie afraid to take their kids to the doctor.
Changes in health insurance for HUDS workers are especially frightening because the average worker makes $33,839 a year. Many work overtime hours during the school year to survive. At most jobs, full-time workers can expect year-round employment. However, many HUDS workers are laid off for several months out of the year and, as seasonal employees, cannot collect unemployment during this time. In the past, this period of layoff was much shorter, but the lengthening of summer vacation and Wintersession has reduced workers’ capacities to earn income during these months. Only seven percent of HUDS workers made the 2080 hours that is considered standard full-time work, according to data released by the University.
Harvard recently raised a record $7 billion, surpassing its fundraising goal by $500 million. Even so, the institution with the largest university endowment in history consistently fails to look out for its lowest-paid and hardest-working employees. The money required to maintain the workers’ current health-care plans and ensure a sustainable annual income is inconsequential to the university—but of the utmost consequence to workers.
Though we include these numbers to speak to the ease with which Harvard can meet its workers’ needs, it is Harvard’s moral obligation as an educator of future citizen-leaders and as an employer to do so, regardless of financial means.
After months of negotiations with the administration, HUDS workers are now planning to strike. As students, we must stand by HUDS, even if the administration attempts to divide us from them by saying that the workers aren’t justified in their concerns, that those concerns have been addressed in negotiations, or that the workers are acting in ways that are harmful to the Harvard community.
We want to be clear: Workers are not responsible for this institution’s failure to provide them with affordable healthcare and a sustainable yearly income. That failure is the University’s alone. Dining hall workers are and always have been an integral part of the Harvard community. What is harmful to them is harmful to us.
We love and believe in the potential of the Harvard community, which is why we want the administration to do better. We encourage other students to support HUDS, to learn about these issues, and to spend time getting to know their dining hall workers, all of whom, like Jackie, have stories to share. HUDS workers have our backs every day. Now it’s our turn to have theirs.
CORRECTION: Sept. 16, 2016
Due to an editing error, a pervious version of this op-ed indicated that seven HUDS employees worked the 2080 hours that is standard for full-time employment. In fact, the figure is seven percent.
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