Harvard University, which has the largest endowment of any school in the country, is cutting its subcontracted dining hall workers without pay as it shuts down in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The move is drawing criticism from employment rights advocates on and off campus who point to the university's $40.9 billion endowment as evidence that the school is hardly in financial straits. They also claim the decision violates Harvard's wage equality policy, which requires the university to compensate dining hall contract workers in a fashion comparable to the school's directly hired employees.
Harvard closed campus dining halls and other facilities earlier this month when it transitioned its courses online due to the outbreak. The university agreed to provide 30 days of paid leave and benefits to direct employees who were laid off, including full-time food service workers, a university spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon.
University president Lawrence Bacow and his wife tested positive for coronavirus on Tuesday. Bacow said he and his wife were tested Monday after experiencing symptoms Sunday and received results within 24 hours. Meanwhile, Americans across the country have reported waiting five to seven days for test results.
But the agreement does not extend to workers who were hired as subcontractors in campus dining halls, according to the Labor and Employment Action Project at Harvard Law School.
A Harvard spokesman said he was unable to provide the Free Beacon with the number of subcontract employees in dining services. In 2018, the New York Times reported that the university dining halls employed 275 subcontractors.
Based on the local living wage standard, it would cost Harvard $710,000 to provide four weeks of full-time paid leave for all of its subcontracted dining employees. This represents 0.001 percent of Harvard's endowment.
Other universities that have transitioned to online classes have handled the situation with contract employees differently. The University of Chicago said last week it would continue paying its subcontract workers through the end of the academic year. The University of Chicago has an endowment of $8.5 billion, around one-fifth the size of Harvard's.
"During this challenging time, we are making a commitment that through our contracts with the relevant vendors, the food service workers at the university, both full- and part-time, will continue to receive their regular pay for the duration of spring quarter," University of Chicago vice president Ivan Samstein told the Chicago Maroon on Friday.
A coalition of student and faculty groups sent a petition to Harvard University president Lawrence Bacow urging him to provide pay to all campus workers impacted by the shutdown and to extend the paid leave through the end of the semester. The petition received 5,371 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
"[T]he university administration has refused to guarantee these 30 days of pay to subcontracted dining and catering workers at Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, and the Graduate School of Design, as well as at the Science Center's Clover Cafe and the School of Education's Rebecca's Cafe," the petition says.
The petition, organized by the Labor and Employment Action Project, also claims that the university violated its Wage and Benefits Parity Policy.
According to that policy, "contractors that provide security, custodial, or dining services to Harvard departments must pay their on-campus non-management employees total compensation comparable to the total compensation received by Harvard's in-house unionized employees performing the same work." This includes hourly wages, paid time off, and employee benefits, as well as tuition and childcare assistance, according to the Harvard website.
"This is despicable!" tweeted Leta Hong Fincher, a Harvard graduate and author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. "Harvard has the largest endowment in the world and can't even pay its dining workers through a pandemic? Shame!"
Nathan Heller, a staff writer at the New Yorker, wrote on Twitter: "This is somewhat embarrassing. Harvard University could not be described as cash-strapped or market-vulnerable, and presumably payment of all its dining workers was budgeted for the year. It should pay them as budgeted."
Although Harvard is a tax-exempt, nonprofit university, its $40.9 billion endowment is worth more than the valuation of many large companies, such as AirBnB and Lyft. Its endowment is also worth more than the gross domestic product of some small countries, including Bahrain and Iceland.
Harvard indicated that its decision could be open to reassessment.
"For Harvard's own dining services employees whose work is eliminated or reduced due to this step to lower the campus population, the University has committed to continue pay for 30 days," Harvard spokesman Jason Newton told the Free Beacon. "The university will continue to review and assess its human resources policies, including those related to compensation, as this public health crisis and its economic impact continues to evolve."