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Harvard Custodians Ratify One-Year Contract with University, Push to Protect Contracted Employees from Layoffs

Harvard custodians ratified a new one-year contract Friday with 97 percent of voters approving of the agreement.
Harvard custodians ratified a new one-year contract Friday with 97 percent of voters approving of the agreement. By Anne M. Foley
By Cara J. Chang and Meimei Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

Custodians at Harvard ratified a year-long contract with the University last Friday that guarantees health benefits and a one-time bonus, but does not protect contracted custodians from impending layoffs.

The union leading the negotiations — 32BJ, the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union — represents about 700 custodians, in addition to approximately 300 security guards. The custodians’ agreement will expire Nov. 15, 2021, one year from the previous contract’s original expiration date.

Security guards ratified a separate one-year contract with their employer, Securitas, on Dec. 30, 2020.

Notably, the custodians’ contract does not include protections for contracted workers, who make up more than 40 percent of the custodial workforce. Since the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020, Harvard had extended pay and benefits for contracted workers idled by the pandemic, but it announced in November that it would end the policy on Jan. 15, 2021.

After that date, idled employees directly employed by the University can use emergency excused absences to keep 70 percent of their pay, while idled contracted workers will not receive pay.

Approximately 300 of the 700 custodians represented by 32BJ are employed by various subcontractors, 32BJ Vice President Roxana L. Rivera said in an interview.

Some of those employees — such as custodians at Harvard Business School — will be able to continue receiving pay under agreements with specific employers, but 173 contracted custodians will go without pay when the policy lapses, according to union bargaining committee member Luis M. Toribio.

Friday’s agreement guarantees that employers will keep covering healthcare costs for the custodians, and that every employee will receive a one-time bonus of up to $1,500, depending on how many hours they worked prior to the pandemic. The new contract also stipulates an additional $300 bonus for employees who worked on campus for 75 to 100 percent of their regularly scheduled hours from March to November and a $150 bonus for employees who worked 50 to 74 percent of their regularly scheduled hours.

Shop steward and bargaining committee member Doris E. Reina-Landaverde said that, although the union and the University reached an agreement, she feels unsatisfied with portions of the contract, such as the lack of job security for contracted employees.

“I’m not happy with what we got, because as essential workers, I feel the University has to recognize our job,” said Reina-Landaverde, who is a directly employed custodian. “We are in the front lines, [and] put our life at risk to protect the community.”

Reina-Landaverde added that she is “not happy” with the one-time bonus stipulated by the agreement instead of a wage increase, but she said the union had to settle for temporary protections given the uncertain situation for workers.

“Most of the workers were afraid to continue to rally,” Reina-Landaverde said, referring to the danger of the virus. “We had to just get the contract because it’s very important to be protected.”

Ultimately, 97 percent of those who voted favored ratifying the agreement, according to an email the union provided to The Crimson. Two-thirds of the membership participated in the vote.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard is “pleased” to have made a tentative agreement with the union.

“We are grateful for the commitment to negotiating during what has been an unprecedented and unsettling year, and we are pleased to reach resolution despite complicating circumstances brought on by the pandemic,” Newton wrote.

According to Rivera, 32BJ is continuing to organize in order to secure paid leave for its contracted members. The union is also working with UNITE HERE Local 26, which represents the University’s food services workers and whose contracted employees are also facing imminent layoffs.

“What is still uncertain is, basically once the Covid emergency pay policy ends on January 15, what will happen to the contracted workers that may be sent home due to lack of work in the spring semester,” Rivera said. “We are going to continue that effort.”

Paula G. Martinez, a contracted custodian at the Business School and member of the bargaining committee, said she doesn’t agree with the distinction between directly-employed and contracted workers.

“It’s true we’re under subcontractors,” she said. “But we’re not doing anything different that direct hires are doing — we’re cleaning, we’re disinfecting.”

Toribio, who is directly employed, echoed Martinez’s sentiment.

“We want to support those contracted workers because we are the same,” he said. “We are coworkers. We are brothers and sisters.”

Toribio said the union is turning to the contractors and individual graduate schools to provide protections for contracted workers. Besides the Business School, Toribio said he is unaware of any other schools that have changed their policies per the union’s requests.

While Martinez said she is happy with the extension of wages and benefits under the new year-long contract, she ultimately voted against it because it did not provide job security for contracted custodians.

“I’m happy that we have the benefits, but we have nothing on paper to say that we are helping our co-workers keep their jobs,” she said.

In the meantime, ground organizing is underway. The union plans to hold a masked and socially-distanced action on campus Thursday at noon, according to 32BJ SEIU spokesperson Amanda Torres-Price.

For now, Toribio said custodians will have to wait for the individual schools and contractors to decide on policies for contracted workers.

“After that, we will see what we can do,” he said.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at cara.chang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at meimei.xu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @meimeixu7.

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