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To Support Workers, Harvard Should Bite the Fiscal Bullet

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Earlier this month, Harvard custodians protested, calling on the University to guarantee it would not lay off any custodial workers this coming spring. The University agreed to such workload protections in March, when directly employed and, notably, contract workers were guaranteed regular pay and benefits through the end of May even if the COVID-19 pandemic prevented them from performing their normal duties.

Now Harvard and members of its custodial staff are at a sticking point. “Continued financial pressures” have led Harvard to reverse previously guaranteed worker protections, according to the University’s Executive Vice President Katie N. Lapp. Despite (literal) rallying cries from staff, as of Nov. 12, the University has left the workers it directly employs with fewer workload protections than before, and its 300 contracted custodial workers with seemingly none.

We’ve often written about the tension between Harvard, the Corporation, and Harvard, the University and in particular how that bears on labor practices. Now, more than ever, is a time for Harvard to act as a community steward, and, yes, probably at the expense of its bottom line.

The University’s unwillingness to guarantee pay for all of its employees speaks to the pull of corporate Harvard on its decision making.

But if it truly considers its staff an integral part of its “learning and living” community, then those instincts have to be let down.

We understand that Harvard may well be under legitimate financial strain and that growth of the endowment — which returned 7.3 percent in 2020, bringing its valuation to $41.9 billion — doesn’t mean the University is suddenly financially unburdened. We know it’s been a tough year for the University. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, for example, incurred $30 million in unforeseen expenses and lost revenue in fiscal year 2020.

But shouldn’t Harvard protect its employees even, or especially, during financially tough times? Everyone is taking a financial hit right now — better to do so boldly and in the name of care of our community. If Harvard really considers staff to be vital members of the Harvard community, then protecting them should happen even at a loss.

In justifying why the University would no longer guarantee staff regular pay and benefits, Vice President Lapp cited issuing students room and board refunds as one of the “difficult, yet necessary decision[s]” that put Harvard at a financial loss; further losses, she predicted, will come from students deferring admission and requiring increased financial aid. No doubt, supporting these student needs has been the right thing for the University to do. But it shouldn’t preclude a similar generosity toward the workers who make that room and board possible in the first place.

Further, the distinction between directly employed and subcontracted employees should not factor into the University’s treatment of its workers. That equally necessary and involved workers are treated differently illustrates the untenable nature of the subcontracting model. Harvard should not only guarantee the continued employment of these subcontracted employees, but in a more long-term shift towards fair labor practices, move toward direct employment and more permanent protections.

Harvard’s employees’ level of need brought on by the pandemic has remained constant, if not increased, since the spring, when these issues first arose. That we’re having the same debates now is disappointing to say the least. Harvard’s support for its employees should be in touch with the ongoing reality of their struggles.

As we wrote in regards to the University’s treatment of graduate students in the spring, generosity is most powerful when it moves from the top down. All across the world, people are having to take losses in order to care for each other and themselves. Harvard will have to continue to make sacrifices — perhaps some of the biggest in its history — to support its community. That’s going above and beyond, but that excellence is what we expect of this institution.

A fiscal loss will be a moral and communal victory.

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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