Free Fall

By Sophia S. Liang and Matteo N. Wong
By Isabella C. Aslarus

In the first week of August, Harvard University Dining Services employees received emails and phone calls to report for training on Aug. 20. After a six month hiatus, they were returning to work.

Anabela A. and Christopher M. Pappas, a married couple who have worked for HUDS for a combined seven decades, were first told by the University that everyone would be tested before returning. For Anabela, who has Type I diabetes and is thus potentially at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, the protocol was a relief: She could finally return safely to the students and job that she cherished.

But five days before the training, rumors began to swirl: There were some difficulties administering the tests. Through phone calls from House building management, the Pappases learned that HUDS workers were not required to get tested before returning. Instead, they would receive coronavirus tests immediately as the first part of training.

Worried for her safety, Anabela decided not to go to training. Citing doctor’s notes and her diabetes, she asked to delay her start until all dining hall workers had been tested. Her request was refused: Human resources, she says, told her “you’re either in or you’re out.” Only after what her husband describes as “a bit of an arm wrestle” with HR, she received — and is still on — paid leave.

But for many other employees, that wasn’t an option — they had to report to work to claim their job and wages. “They didn’t give us a choice to come back,” says Emily, a HUDS employee in Quincy House who spoke under the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy. “You either came back or, you know, you lost your pay.”

Christopher Pappas, Emily, and many of their co-workers reported to training on Aug. 20, a Thursday. Pappas was not tested for COVID-19 until the following Monday, and some, including Emily, had to wait until the middle or end of that week. “We were told that a shuttle bus was going to come pick us up and that we were going to go in groups of ten to get tested,” says Kat, a HUDS worker in Dunster House who also spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of employer retaliation. “And that never happened.”

Dining hall staff from multiple houses had the same experience. “We were promised that everybody would be tested upon coming to work,” Pappas says. “And they breached that promise.”

Who exactly made that promise — and who was responsible for keeping it — is unclear. Employees reported learning about the reopening process from muddled information streams, including personal contacts, their union, unit managers, and administrators.

By Kathryn S. Kuhar

Planning to reopen a university of Harvard’s size during a pandemic posed obstacles of enormous logistical, public-health, and financial complexity. Many of the challenges Harvard faced were new, but there was at least one, admittedly imprecise, precedent: the spring.

Knowing little about COVID-19 other than that the virus was highly contagious and potentially deadly, Harvard gave undergraduates less than a week to leave campus in March. By the end of the month — after weeks of chaos and uncertainty for students and workers alike — the University had transitioned to remote learning.

But dozens of staff worked throughout the pandemic to keep campus running — facing PPE shortages, unforgiving time-off policies, and a lack of clear communication from administrators.

When, in April, Harvard announced that it would be open for the fall 2020 semester, the University had time on its side. “With more time to prepare,” University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote, “we are confident we can create a better, more engaging experience for the fall.” It could avoid the mistakes it had made in the spring, including the ways it often seemed to disregard workers’ safety.

Over 100 Harvard affiliates worked for months on planning for Harvard’s reopening, considering factors from testing and contact tracing to virtual learning. Community health was the “highest priority,” administrators say — in particular, the safety of those tasked with carrying out administrators’ final decisions, including dining hall staff, custodians, and security guards.

But many workers felt as if that concern wasn’t always apparent. As Harvard prepared and implemented its plans to partially reopen campus this fall, a rift emerged: between theory and practice, between concise email updates and a difficult-to-navigate bureaucracy, between the expert-led planning committees and the workers and students on the ground. The Pappases weren’t the only ones to fall through the cracks.

‘Somebody Has To Do the Work’

In an April interview with The Harvard Gazette, University President Lawrence S. Bacow recounted his reaction upon finding out that he and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 24: “Well, we’d been very, very careful, and I was a little bit surprised, in truth, because Adele and I had not seen anyone except each other for close to ten days before we started experiencing symptoms. We were completely isolated in the house,” Bacow said.

But the Bacows had not, in fact, been isolated in their house. They had continued to invite two Harvard custodians to clean their home for four hours, twice a week, well into the first wave of the pandemic. Bacow resides in Elmwood, the traditional home of University presidents.

According to one of these custodians, Diana, who spoke under condition of anonymity, the last day they cleaned the Bacow residence was March 19, ten days after the University announced it was shutting down and three days before the Bacows began experiencing symptoms.

On March 23, Diana received a call notifying her that Bacow and his wife were feeling COVID-like symptoms. She was instructed to quarantine for two weeks. One day later, the Bacows tested positive. Shortly thereafter, Diana’s co-worker, who’d also been cleaning the Bacows’ home, began experiencing fever, headache, and difficulty breathing. This co-worker also tested positive.

“After one week [in quarantine], I lost my taste, and I lost my smell,” Diana says. She strongly suspects that she contracted COVID-19, though she was never tested. (At this point in the pandemic, testing centers discouraged people with milder symptoms from coming in.)

“Everyone was really nice,” Diana says, regarding her quarantine. Her supervisor assured her that her job would be secure, he regularly offered to drop off food and supplies, and the Bacows even occasionally called and texted.

While Bacow’s infection was well-documented and promptly treated, many Harvard custodians say they faced barriers to getting tested throughout the spring. As a result, the scope of the outbreak among them remains unclear — one custodian estimates she knows about 60 custodians across the University who have experienced COVID-like symptoms. Another knows of at least eight custodians who tested positive for COVID-19 at the Law School alone, one of whom has been in the hospital since April. A spokesperson for the custodians’ union, 32BJ SEIU, says that members have reported 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases to the union, along with several other presumed cases.

But because few workers could access testing early in the pandemic, these numbers are likely underestimates, the 32BJ SEIU spokesperson says.

In a statement to The Crimson in the spring, University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote that Harvard provides all front-line workers with “adequate PPE” and training on COVID-19 protocols, as well as employing contact tracing and self-isolation measures for those who contract the virus.

Still, workers’ fears due to perceptions of a disorganized institutional response to the pandemic are undeniable. Custodians, security guards, and dining hall staff across campus reported a shortage of PPE, unsympathetic supervisors, and work assignments that placed productivity above social distancing and their health.

Before the pandemic, David, a custodian at Harvard Law School, would enter his supervisor’s office to receive his assignment and his keys at the start of each workday. At the beginning of March, however, he noticed his supervisor had a bad cough and looked feverish. David, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, grew worried about the possibility of COVID-19 spreading to him and his two dozen co-workers. But when he contacted the supervisor’s manager, his concerns were dismissed.

“He didn’t take it seriously,” David says. “They just want the job to be done, and they don’t care about the health of the workers.” His manager assured David that they were working in an extremely clean and safe environment.

David began feeling feverish while at work a few days later. His doctor told him that his symptoms were not severe enough to warrant a COVID-19 test but encouraged him to self-isolate at home. David’s doctor and manager cleared him to return to work three days later, when his fever had subsided.

When he returned in the second week of March, his supervisor was still coughing. He explained to David that while his own doctor had advised him to take off work, he’d refused. Instead, he told his doctor he would take some medicine and feel better. The supervisor continued to come to work every day, coughing for more than a month.

David decided to start standing outside the office while waiting for keys to be handed out.

At the same time, Harvard’s administrators were monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely. Behind the scenes, senior leadership at the College ran an annual emergency simulation exercise. This year, it was centered on preparing for the threat of COVID-19, according to an interview Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana gave with The Crimson on March 31. After a slow buildup of cancelled events and increasingly worried emails, on the morning of March 10 Bacow and Khurana announced that the College would transition to remote learning and that students were to leave campus in six days and not return.

William D. Nicolson, a cook in Dunster, learned of the closing on the same day via email. “Holy shit,” he recalls thinking. His family relied on his income. “What are we going to do?”

The University allowed a small number of undergraduates in extenuating circumstances to remain on campus, but the front-line employees charged with keeping campus operational navigated contradictory or nonexistent streams of information.

Many workers weren’t aware of the University’s decision to close until they arrived at work — security guard Aryt Alasti says that most guards are not connected to Harvard’s official messaging system since they are privately contracted through Securitas. Alasti himself only found out about the closure through a Crimson article. Concerns about furloughs and layoffs abound.

“There’s insufficient consultation with those on the ground, who are doing the work to implement what the decisions are,” Alasti says.

Even after the University sent students home in mid-March to protect them and, ostensibly, the Harvard community from coronavirus, David noticed flagrant violations of public health precautions that his managers didn’t seem to care about.

Groups of six or seven custodians worked together in small rooms with no masks. One custodian who showed up coughing asked if he could go home but was put to work anyway. (His symptoms progressively worsened over the next few days until he went to the hospital and tested positive for COVID-19.) When the manager’s assistant called to notify David that a co-worker had tested positive, David was not allowed to take off work and quarantine as a safety measure. Only months later did he discover that other people he’d been in contact with had also tested positive around that time, and he had never been contacted at all.

Christina, a custodian at the College who cleaned the dorms after students moved out, says supervisors frequently made her work in close proximity with three to four other custodians, none of whom were given masks.

“It was scary because we didn’t have the right equipment,” Christina says. Each day she came into work, she feared for the safety of her family, especially her young daughter with asthma. She expected that Harvard, as “a big institution,” would be more prepared. “We don’t understand [why] Harvard donated masks to hospitals, [but] they didn’t give them to the workers,” she says. Christina spoke under condition of anonymity because one of her former co-workers was pressured by their supervisor to leave her job after speaking to The Crimson.

Brandon J. Mancilla, a Ph.D. candidate in the History department and the president of Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers, mobilized STEM graduate students to take masks and gloves from their laboratories and hand them off to custodial staff, an effort which lasted for several weeks until Harvard began supplying PPE.

“Harvard had not yet prepared its workers for the massive job they were about to take on in cleaning the entire campus,” he says.

David, too, believes that Harvard neglected the wellbeing of its employees.

“The president of Harvard gets COVID-19, and he gets tested right away,” David says. “But for us, they started doing the tests two months ago [at the beginning of fall], and I’ve been working all these months — I never stopped.”

In the last week of March David’s supervisors called all Law School custodians into a meeting to announce that most of them would be permitted to go home temporarily, except for a couple volunteers the school needed to stay behind and continue working. When nobody stepped forward, the supervisors threatened to rotate through the entire list instead.

“So I raised my hand [and said], ‘Okay, I volunteer to stay,’” David recalls. “I didn’t feel safe either, but somebody has to do the work.”

As the virus surged across the nation in April, David and the one other custodian who volunteered worked in a high-risk environment nobody else wanted to enter. “I risked my life [during] that time. And I’m still risking my life. I’m still risking the health of my kids and my wife,” David says.

Though they were originally told that they’d get extra vacation days in exchange for their work, that promise never panned out. They received the exact same pay and benefits as the people staying at home, and David got only a few “thank yous” from his supervisors. “I didn’t even get a Christmas card,” he said.

Some Harvard employees were granted even less flexibility — security guards, for instance, could not choose whether or how they wanted to work in the first few months of the pandemic, when Securitas had yet to supply them with PPE. In early April, after hearing that several people in her building had gotten COVID-19, security guard and union steward Amel A. Ahmed told her scheduling manager she didn’t feel comfortable coming on shift. She was given permission to take the upcoming weekend off but was told that she’d have to take unpaid Family and Medical Leave in the future.

“Whether I got to work during the pandemic or not was not a decision or choice that I had,” says Amel A. Ahmed, a security guard and union steward. “My building was open [and] I was on schedule. If I refused, obviously, I wouldn’t be getting paid.”

Harvard updated its paid leave policy in increments — providing 30 days of paid leave on March 19, extending that to May 28 by the end of the month, and then to June 28 in the beginning of May. Nonetheless, many workers say they felt anxiety and fear as they waited. “There was a lot of anxiousness because we didn’t know,” Christopher Pappas recalls. “It was first we would get paid for two weeks, and then two more weeks, and then to the end of to the end of May. And then they extended it, and they extended it up until now.”

In the early months of the pandemic, labor unions and activist groups such as HGSU-UAW and the Student Labor Action Movement were often the first, or only, ones to address workers’ needs. In March, HGSU-UAW penned an open letter to Harvard’s administration demanding, among other things, that workers be guaranteed full salaries, coronavirus testing and treatment, and unlimited paid sick time.

The many ways in which Harvard self-corrected throughout the spring — more generous paid leave policies for workers, PPE, financial relief for low-income undergraduates, and other initiatives — came after activists’ demands and union negotiations. Based on official University statements, whether this is coincidence or causation is unclear. “The University doesn’t like giving anyone credit but itself when it announces something,” Mancilla says.

For Harvard’s workers, the second half of the spring semester was marked by fear, uncertainty, and, above all, a lack of communication between the people making the plans and the people implementing them. As summer approached, Harvard was determined to use the extra time to turn a corner. Hundreds of faculty, administrators, and public health officials began gathering in virtual teams to take the lessons learned from the spring to plan for an improved fall.

Designing the Model

Throughout the summer, Raphaëlle P. Soffe ’21 walked mock routes through Adams House. To help develop testing and tracing protocol for the reopening, she was trying out potential drop-off points for self-administered coronavirus tests.

In a summer of rapidly changing scientific literature, regulations, and infection rates, no amount of preparation could provide administrators absolute certainty. But if chaos and urgency characterized the spring, then the months Harvard had to prepare for the fall offered time to theorize and reflect. Eleven working groups and hundreds of Harvard affiliates spent tens of thousands of hours to plan a safe and academically rich semester, with administrators claiming they prioritized students and workers alike.

“A major concern were the folks who were a little bit older, who might get exposed,” says Mark C. Fishman, a biology professor who co-led the University’s task force on testing and tracing. “That was a population that was of the highest concern to us.” Yet events from throughout the summer and the early fall exposed a slippage between intent and execution.

In July, administrators announced that they would bring back up to 40 percent of students. Incoming first-years, who were totally unfamiliar with Harvard, were invited back, along with those who faced challenges to learning in their home environments.

Harvard involved select students in its planning and decision-making process, in particular through the Harvard College Deans’ Student Advisory Panel, a group of several dozen undergraduates selected by application in the fall, prior to the pandemic. They were asked questions about reopening scenarios, how to ensure compliance with public health guidelines, and more.

Yet some were dissatisfied with the panel’s role and composition. “It should be people who students choose to represent themselves, not people administration chooses to represent students,” says Rukmini “Mini” Ganesh ’22, the finance chair of the Undergraduate Council. She adds that the UC asked multiple times to be included in fall planning discussions, “and they never let us in the room.”

But the involvement of students at all in the planning process indicated that the administration was trying to avoid mishaps from the spring. When undergraduates were told they had six days to leave campus in March, they did not know if there would be emergency housing, how to find storage for their belongings, how to pay for transportation — or where to find that information.

Hundreds of students and alumni mobilized to make demands of administration and, not waiting for those demands to be met, compiled evacuation guides and supported one another through fundraising and mutual aid networks. Harvard eventually announced various support mechanisms for its students.

Even as administrators devoted enormous resources to resolve the problems undergraduates faced in the spring, security guards like Ahmed did not receive a mask from Securitas until June. “We had to practically beg for PPE because it felt like even though they knew this [pandemic] was a real thing, they didn’t act on it in such a way,” she says.

Securitas declined to comment on her concerns.

The fall reopening committee, in theory, would help address these fears and uncertainty on the part of both students and workers by figuring out how to safely bring 40 percent of undergraduates to campus.

After running various models, the working group settled on testing everyone living or working in the houses two or three times a week, figuring they would be most exposed to the virus. Most other Harvard affiliates unconnected to the houses would be tested once a week or on an ad hoc basis. Adams House was one of two “pilot houses” used to study what the testing frequency, turnaround time, location, and affordability would look like. Fishman says the committee decided unsupervised tests were more likely to encourage compliance with protocol.

Contact tracing would also play a key role in outbreak prevention, and the working group developed a tracing system that uses cell phone signals to track people’s movements across campus.

Students participated in that decision making process: In meetings with administrators, Soffe was adamant that students’ privacy be protected and that the technology needed to function exclusively for coronavirus management, not discipline. So far this semester, the number of COVID-19 cases has been low enough that another, more precise tracking technology that the committee considered — tracing an individual’s movement within houses — has not proven necessary.

Soffe believes she had a strong say in the conversations about data privacy and testing logistics. “[Students are] ultimately the ones they really want to comply,” she explains. “If for some reason we stopped complying, that is a nightmare for them. So they wanted us somewhat involved.” If she emailed a question to anyone on the testing and tracing committee, she says, she received a detailed response within the hour.

Although summer communications from Bacow, Gay, and Khurana often emphasized community input, Harvard’s approach did not solicit direct feedback from workers or unions. Representatives of 32BJ SEIU, HGSU, and Local 26, the union which represents HUDS workers, say the University did not consult them on the actual decision to reopen, although 32BJ SEIU and Local 26 did report having conversations with Harvard throughout the summer regarding paid leave and working environment policies. “No unions were consulted by this working group,” Mancilla says. “It was very much a wait and see.”

Mancilla notes that, at times, he was so frustrated that being consulted by Harvard was beside the point — he simply wanted “transparency and just a timeline. I don’t think anyone appreciates Claudine Gay’s emails that just go on for 600 words and there’s nothing in it.”

Spring Forward, Fall Back

“There was no flexibility,” Kat, the HUDS worker in Dunster House, recalls of the call telling her to report for training in August. “Especially for us mothers, with schools being closed, that put a lot of people in a lot of chaotic turmoil.” She received limited communications from managers or administrators throughout the summer and believes she was the only person in her unit who was tested before the training.

For days, she worked in an environment in which nobody had been tested; for weeks, Harvard required a mask that hung loose, exposing both her nose and mouth, and caused an allergic reaction.

After months of planning, Harvard managed to create a much safer environment for workers across campus than it had in the spring. PPE has been distributed and the combination of self-testing and contact tracing has proven effective, with only 91 positive cases out of over 160,000 tests since June to date.

Yet there have also been echoes of the previous semester: fumbled testing protocol, insufficient PPE, garbled communications. “The big question here is,” Pappas continues, “‘Is Harvard really taking the safety of their employees and everyone else as seriously as they should?’”

Harvard provided dining hall staff with three reusable cotton masks, which they were expected to wash on their own for a five-day workweek. Numerous workers complained. “The masks they provided were very flimsy. It looked almost like a t-shirt cut into a square,” Pappas describes. “It wasn’t the best effort for a mask, and the fact that they were getting down to a mandate, you have to wear that particular mask — people didn’t feel safe.” Kat, along with several of her colleagues, had doctor’s notes justifying the use of an alternative mask rejected by her supervisors. Local 26 negotiations with Harvard have since resolved the mask issue, allowing dining hall workers to wear an alternative mask.

The experiences of Harvard employees have not been uniform across campus — those working in administrative or laboratory jobs were able to transition to remote working more easily, and many report higher satisfaction with the University’s policies during the pandemic. Carrie E. Barbash, president of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, says that she is satisfied overall with how the University has responded to the union’s requests. In response to HUCTW and other unions’ advocacy, Harvard granted an additional ten days of dependent care time to its employees, a policy that Barbash says especially helps working parents.

But not every measure has been a success. The University hasn’t provided workers with air purifiers or enough hand sanitizer in buildings that are a “petri dish” even under normal circumstances, Widener Library Assistant and HUCTW representative Geoff P. Carens says. At the end of September, the ventilation system inside one of the Library Technical Services buildings failed and managers did not allow people to open the windows, so there was no fresh air inside the building for several days.

Even Harvard’s lauded self-supervised testing system — necessary for not only workers but also students — almost didn’t get off the ground.

“Decisions were made pretty much at the time of the rollout,” Fishman recalls. “Up to the very last minute we weren’t really sure about how we were going to accomplish everything. We didn’t even know if we would have the ability to do unsupervised swabbing.” Students were on campus before the FDA had approved the University’s self-testing model. Until they received approval in the first week of September, Harvard had to set up a tent in front of HUHS for centralized testing. “We were able to quickly shift over to [self-testing],” Fishman says. “But that was really, ‘while the plane was in the air, we were fixing it.’”

Protocol for positive test results has, at times, seemed patchy, leading to confusion and potentially hazardous working environments akin to the springtime experiences of custodial staff and guards. In September, workers in Quincy Dining Hall received mixed instructions for how to handle a co-worker’s positive test case, with some workers asked to stay and continue service. Emily, the Quincy HUDS employee, says her colleague who tested positive returned to work without a full 14-day quarantine, making her and some others fear for their safety. Positive cases in the Dunster dining hall, Kat says, have led to similar confusion.

In regard to the positive case in Quincy, HUDS spokesperson Crista Martin previously wrote to The Crimson stating that HUDS immediately followed University response protocol, including closing and cleaning the dining hall, as well as contact tracing. They did not suspect any other staff members had been in close contact with the worker who tested positive.

Arun K. Malik, a security guard in Mather, says he believes the pandemic training that guards received, a series of generic videos that did not appear specific to Harvard, was inadequate.

He and several other guards still feel confused about how to handle both common and emergency situations they may face on the job, including whether to disinfect the packages they receive, what they should do if they begin to feel sick while at work, and how to evacuate students safely if a fire alarm goes off at the central quarantine dormitory.

Malik also believes that the current policies disincentivize people from self-reporting their symptoms. Guards who have symptoms such as a headache, cough, or fever are required to get tested and self-isolate until receiving the results. They must first use their personal sick time and vacation time for these quarantines — only once this personal time is used up, and only if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19, will Securitas reimburse them for their quarantine time. But since many COVID symptoms overlap with those of the common cold and flu, Malik fears that guards will be hesitant to disclose their true symptoms so as to preserve their paid time off.

“They’ve set up the incentive structure to punish people,” Malik says. “If you’re honest, you will be punished and lose your vacation time.”

Carens, too, feels that financial considerations have unjustly shaped worker treatment. They say that the University misled its employees by leading them to believe that Harvard was in more dire financial shape than it actually was. Fishman, of the testing working group, emphasized that throughout the summer, finances never interfered with public health considerations.

But workers, Carens says, were threatened with layoffs over the summer and encouraged to save the University money by reducing their hours, using their vacation time during the pandemic, and even retiring early in exchange for a year’s pay.

“[Harvard was] crying poverty and crying poverty, and they got 47 people in the libraries to agree to retire early,” Carens says. “And then a few days later it was announced that the endowment went up [around seven percent] and they had more money than ever.”

Workers face even greater uncertainty looking toward the winter, after students move off campus for Thanksgiving. There are rumors of layoffs and unpaid leave among custodians and HUDS staff. “We want to know whether we’re going to be getting paid because we’re supposed to not be coming back until February,” Emily says. “No one’s really talking about it. We want to know, are they going to make us use our vacation time?”

Custodians are also concerned about spring layoffs, and their contract is set to expire in mid-November. 32BJ SEIU is currently bargaining for a one-year extension with a raise sufficient to support custodians’ families during a time when other members of their households may have been laid off.

Contract negotiations and pending decisions about the upcoming spring offer Harvard yet another opportunity to consider what, and especially who, constitutes the University’s health — an opportunity to seal the persistent chasm in communication, safety, and resource allocation between workers and administrators.

Kat, like the Pappases, loves her work and wants Harvard to stay open. “That is a place that we go for safety, for happiness,” she says. “We look at the students as — those are our second children. Because they’re away from their parents, we have to step in and make sure they’re healthy and happy and safe.”

After she was called to work in August, Kat tried public transportation but deemed it unsafe for herself — and by extension, her family, her co-workers, and her students. Dining hall staff are essential workers, but they are not receiving hazard pay. Kat has nonetheless spent hundreds of dollars on Uber fares to commute to and from work.

“It’s not all about production,” she says. “People’s lives matter.”

— Staff writer Sophia S. Liang can be reached at

— Staff writer Matteo N. Wong can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @matteo_wong.

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