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On Leave Due to COVID-19 Concerns, Forty-Three Harvard Dining Workers Risk Going Without Pay

Forty-three Harvard University Dining Services employees may risk going unpaid as they take sick or personal leaves this semester.
Forty-three Harvard University Dining Services employees may risk going unpaid as they take sick or personal leaves this semester. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Davit Antonyan and James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writers

Forty-three Harvard University Dining Services employees are at risk of going unpaid for the remainder of the school year because of a loophole in the compensation policies the University has instituted during the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to several affected employees and two representatives from their union.

The employees work in the dining halls that remain open, but are choosing to take sick or personal leave because they are in a high-risk group for COVID-19 or live with at-risk dependents. After their sick days and vacation time runs out — which, for at least one employee, will happen as early as Friday — they will go unpaid until the end of the semester, according to Aaron J. Duckett, a chief shop steward for their union, UNITE HERE Local 26.

Last month, the University announced it would pay through May 28 all Harvard employees who are able to work, but whose job duties stopped after campus closed due to the pandemic. The policy came as a relief to HUDS workers whose dining halls had shuttered for the semester, as they had previously only been promised pay for 30 days.

But it does not apply to those who work in Adams, Eliot, Kirkland, Lowell and Quincy dining halls, which remain open to serve the few undergraduates who remain on campus, or to those working in Cabot and Pforzheimer’s dining hall, which was repurposed to serve graduate students. The halls are serving exclusively bagged meals to comply with new Massachusetts rules prohibiting on-site food and beverage consumption.

Laquiesha N. Rainey, another Local 26 chief shop steward, said she believes the University should make an exception to this policy for at-risk individuals who have preexisting health conditions that prevent them from coming into work. She argued they should be guaranteed the same compensation benefits as other workers to “not have to worry about how to pay their bills or be able to take care of themselves.”

“Those people should be excused because you don’t want them to possibly get sick and bring it into the hall with them,” Rainey said.

Harvard’s enhanced workplace policies during the pandemic allow direct-hire employees to exceed their typical sick leave limits by 14 days. In addition to personal illness, the workers can now use paid sick leave “to meet self-isolation or quarantine requirements, or for the active care of others because of disruptions relating to COVID-19.” The additional days will be taken out of their sick time for next year, according to Rainey.

The University sent a March 24 letter describing the policy to employees who indicated they have an underlying health risk or are concerned about exposing dependents in a high-risk group.

“Employees who exhaust current sick time and the 14 unearned sick days will have the choice to use vacation or personal time to continue pay. Employees without vacation or personal time may go on an unpaid leave,” the letter obtained by The Crimson reads.

Duckett said in an interview that the policy leaves him concerned for the people who already used up most of their sick days each year due to a chronic or preexisting condition and will be unlikely to have many days left before going unpaid.

James C. Burdulis, a cook in Lowell House, is one of the 43 HUDS workers currently on sick leave. He said he broke two of his ribs earlier this year and used all his sick leave to recuperate. Though he is grateful for the 14-day loan, he feels forced to go back to work afterward because he cannot afford to stay home.

“I do plan on going back,” Burdulis said. “I don’t feel safe about it, but I don’t want to lose my job.”

Anabela A. Pappas, a dining worker at Cabot and Pforzheimer dining halls, said both she and her husband have taken sick leave after her doctor ordered them to stay home because she has Type 1 diabetes.

“He’s going to have to be forced to go back to work because we can’t afford it — that’s where we get scared,” Pappas said. “If he’s going to be forced to go back, it beats the purpose of being home.”

Her husband, Christopher M. Pappas, also works in the Cabot and Pforzheimier dining halls and said he plans to go on unpaid sick leave rather than return to work, as he does not want to endanger his wife by breaking their self-isolation.

“If this pandemic wasn’t going on, we wouldn’t be taking sick leave, we’d be working as normal,” Pappas said. “We feel that it’s unfortunate and unfair for us to have no other option but go out on sick leave where we’re going to use that sick time and we’re going to run out.”

He added he believes the University should provide dining employees in open facilities who have preexisting health conditions the same benefits as employees whose units have closed over the past weeks.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an emailed statement that University policies will continue to evolve in the coming weeks.

“We are committed to reviewing our human resources policies on an ongoing basis, with our first priority being the safety and wellbeing of each member of our community,” Swain wrote. “Over the past several weeks, the University has put in place enhancements to these policies, based on the needs of our workers and the best information we have available at the time.”

The letter the University sent to at-risk employees, meanwhile, notes that Harvard will review its sick leave policy at least every 30 days.

But for now, Duckett argued, the policy runs the risk of leaving HUDS’ most “high-risk” workers without pay simply because their dining hall happened to be selected to stay open.

“This is not the group of people that are going to go down to Market Basket and start working,” Duckett said. “In fact, if they weren’t at risk or high risk, they would just be in their dining hall working.”

“We just don’t want these people to slip through the cracks and not get paid, just simply in the name of the fact that their dining hall was open,” he added.

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at davit.antonyan@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

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