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Care About Staff Safety

By Steve S. Li
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

When a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, Harvard University Dining Services workers in Quincy House were told by a manager to go home, but four were then asked by another to stay and serve breakfast to students. UNITE HERE Local 26, the labor union that represents the dining workers, began an investigation into the conflicting instructions and is in discussion with the University to understand the timeline of events.

We hope this investigation proceeds fairly and transparently and that the University has engaged in good faith with the union to arrive at an understanding of what proper safety protocols are and whether they were breached. If so, steps must be taken to ensure that it does not happen again, that the point of confusion is clarified, and that the safety of all workers, students, and other community members are appropriately safeguarded.

But in the short term, the chaos and uncertainty facing Quincy House staff — one of whom reported the day of the test that they were still unsure whether they were expected to report the following day — should remain the focus: Such lack of clarity, both as matter of public health and of respect for workers, is unacceptable.

Particularly as Harvard has gone to great lengths to erect an elaborate testing system with multiple tests per week for employees and students, the politics of which groups live under which regimes of care looms large. In constructing such a system, at the cost, according to University President Lawrence S. Bacow, of tens of millions of dollars, Harvard necessarily has to make decisions about whose care to prioritize and how to do so. In choosing to test HUDS and other workers less frequently, Harvard deprioritizes their well-being.

Harvard has consistently shown itself slow to accommodate the needs of workers through the pandemic. That began last spring, when Harvard shortened contracts for staff unable to work due to the virus, before extending it to the end of June under pressure from unions and activists. It continued, when, in September, privately contracted employees, which includes dining hall staff, reported not receiving the same degree of testing as other campus affiliates. And it appears to be happening again as the collective bargaining-agreement of 1,ooo custodial and janitorial workers is due to expire in November and, despite an active petition requesting a year-long extension of the current agreement, perhaps unsurprisingly, the University has not agreed.

By inviting back only a small fraction of the student body, Harvard made a calculation about how many students it could afford to keep under the aegis of regular testing and a constrained environment. But if those potentially exposed to COVID-19 in Quincy are not sure what to do in the event of a positive test among their dining hall staff, that uncertainty is another indication of a lack of care for clarity and certainty about the rules that apply to Harvard’s staff.

Harvard’s labor community is Harvard’s community. The workers who, in happier times, sustained us through problem sets, midterms, and community nights deserve the freedom to prioritize their health without fearing for their employment. They deserve certainty over employment contracts that should see them through the year. They deserve a system that treats them with the same degree of communication, respect, and concern for their safety as it does students.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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