When the University announced its transition to remote learning, one of the immediate effects was the closure of almost all University dining services, with the exception of Usdan University Center. While students on work-study have been promised compensation and Service Management Group (SMG) custodial staff have been able to keep their positions, over 80% of the University’s dining workers have lost their jobs.
As of April 23rd, the Unite Here Local 217 union, which represents the dining staff on campus, released an online petition asking students, professors, and community members to send letters to President Michael Roth ’78. The petition demands that Roth commit to protecting dining workers’ healthcare and pay dining workers’ full wages if the University does not reopen in the Fall.
“We are all very worried, because President Roth has been saying that he is not sure if Wesleyan will open in the Fall,” the petition reads. “We understand that many things are uncertain right now, but we need to know that Wesleyan will treat us the same as its direct employees and look after us by paying our salaries and benefits, even if the University does not reopen.”
Earlier this month, Local 217 negotiated with Bon Appétit, the University’s food service company, to continue to provide health insurance benefits even for those that have been laid off. But for these workers that have been pushed off the Spring payroll, they are now left to collect unemployment insurance checks from the government stimulus bill to make up for the lost income.
“Getting paid the extra stimulus money is great but we had to make sure the workers have health insurance,” Deanna Bailey, an organizer for Local 217, said. “Our priorities are that workers stay healthy and also that they are collecting unemployment.”
Local 217 was also able to negotiate seven paid sick days for their workers in addition to the paid sick leave that employers are obligated to offer by state law, according to the Memorandum of Understanding agreement between Bon Appétit and Unite Here obtained by The Argus. Bon Appétit has also promised not to punish or demerit employees that call in sick, and will give 14 extra paid sick days if an employee is exposed to COVID-19 or is recommended by a health professional to quarantine.
“For lack of a better term, we made an agreement to not screw each other over, and that we’d work together because we understand these times are difficult for everyone,” Ted Briggs, the union steward for University dining workers, said. “Health benefits stay the same and our agreement also was that pensions and 401(k)s will continue as normal.”
In order to get certain protections for senior workers, who are more susceptible to the virus, the union had to waive their ability to claim grievance, which limits workers’ ability to file complaints if the company breaks their agreement.
“Typically, for example, if someone was getting harassed in the workplace, you can bring them the contract and show them the line where it says that’s not allowed and they have to stop or legal action will be taken,” Briggs said. “But as of right now, we have forfeited our ability to grieve anything in this new agreement because our Union wanted to say we understand there are certain big things going on so we sacrifice our claim to grievance because we want to show that we will work together with management through this difficult time.”
When furloughs began, employees who had worked with the University the longest were given priority for the remaining jobs on campus. However, few positions offered a full 40 hour work week, and most employees now work fewer hours now than they normally would.
“I was able to get a job, however I got 20 hours [a week] instead of the 40 [a week] that I normally do,” Laura Aleggretti-Goldner, who works at Usdan, said. “I’m just grateful for that. I’m grateful I got something. I know there were a lot of people who didn’t get anything. My husband works there also, he’s the Classics cook during the day and does the soups. He’s been there 28 years. And thank god, he was able to get [a] 40 hour job.”
Many senior workers, however, opted to give up their positions due to health concerns about being exposed to the virus at work. For others, the demand of the new work schedule was either too strenuous or impractical.
“While I signed on jobs I was not able to get any shifts that would give me a schedule of more than 20 hours,” Usdan employee Matthew Combe wrote in an email to The Argus. “It was a spilt shift that was not practical for me to take therefore unfortunately I will be collecting unemployment until the fall semester starts.
Usdan Cafe employee Mary Robbins had similar difficulties navigating the new work schedule that was being offered to employees.
“Anything that wasn’t really 30 hours [a week] or so wasn’t worth it for me, just because I have two children at home that need to be homeschooled and I wouldn’t make enough to make it worth it to be away from them,” Robbins said. “I was offered a two day, 16-hour job [a week]. My unemployment was more than that so it didn’t make sense to me and somebody who has less seniority could probably benefit more from that, if their unemployment is severely less than mine.”
Many employees took this approach and filed for unemployment to allow other employees the chance to take shifts.
“It’s my paycheck, and source of income,” Cathy Crocker, who works at Usdan Cafe, said. “But if I was twenty years younger, it would be a devastation. No money coming in, and things like that. The majority of the people here are younger, they have young families.”
Because the dining employees are seasonal workers who are regularly let go in the Summer when school is out of session, the University and Bon Appétit have defended the decision to lay off 80 percent of their workers by stating that these furloughs are routine and protected by the union contracts they have negotiated.
From the perspective of a seasonal worker, however, the early furloughs aren’t just a temporary burden. Losing out on their spring quarter earnings will have devastating effects for next year when they have to collect state unemployment insurance, which seasonal workers rely on to supplement their income during the months of the year when school is out of session and they’ve out of a job. Unemployment Insurance in the state of Connecticut is divvied out by splitting up the work year into four quarters called the “Base Period.” It then takes a workers’ top two highest earning quarters and divides it up to estimate their average weekly earnings so that the state can appropriately subsidize their income during the months when they’re out of work. Because most of Wesleyan’s dining workers have now only worked a full Fall quarter for this year, these layoffs will mean they won’t have any earnings to show for another quarter and will cut the amount of unemployment benefits they can collect in the coming year.
“From the information we’ve gathered from our phone calls recently with workers and the knowledge we have from helping workers get unemployment insurance in the past, our Union estimates that our workers might lose up to fifty percent of their unemployment benefits next year because of these layoffs,” Briggs said.
For this reason, along with the fact that unemployment checks can supplement an annual salary but cannot make up for one, the Union is trying to enter into discussions with the University about providing workers who’ve been given furloughs with their regular paychecks for the Spring. Since the University—as Briggs pointed out—contracts Bon Appétit to essentially operate as a non-for-profit on campus by paying them a bill up front annually, Bon Appétit was already paid this year for their expected Spring food services. Bon Appétit management has confirmed that they’ve already been paid by the University in an email exchange with The Argus.
“It’s not like Bon App is saying, ‘Hey, we’re losing money by just giving you a free paycheck,’ since they already got the money from Wesleyan earlier this year,” Briggs said. “So many of us as workers feel that we are included in that payment by Wesleyan for the expected service and deserve some of the cut of that payment. Really, It’s kind of like passing the money along.”
One uncertainty that Union leaders had raised leading up to the release of the petition would be whether the Union chose to negotiate with Bon Appétit management or the University directly. In terms of the Union’s decision to hold the University responsible rather than Bon App, Briggs highlights that the chain of command more often than not comes straight from the University and follows their directives.
“To work this out it’s kind of both of their responsibilities, but Bon App spends its money the way Wesleyan tells it to, in our experience,” Briggs said. “If Wesleyan told Bon App to pay their workers for the remainder of months then they could do that.”
Briggs, however, has doubts that the dining workers at the moment will be able to organize a sustained campaign to demand for wages given the strenuous circumstances of the pandemic. With the social distancing measures that have been put into place in the state, large gatherings or protests which the Union typically resorts to put pressure on the University would be impossible if negotiations falter.
“We need to decide if people are willing to fight for our wages to be paid, I don’t know if everyone is willing to fight for it,” Briggs said. “And if we do, this COVID-19 pandemic is going to push us to see how much we can integrate communications with the internet and digital world.”
As mentioned in the petition, Local 217 has raised concerns about the future of the workers’ health insurance given some ambiguities in the agreement they reached with Bon App to cover it.
“The temporary agreement with the company to provide health insurance is only until the end of the academic year,” Briggs said. “I’m hoping we can get an extension on our memorandum of understanding and figure out what the deal is with our health insurance but that’s going to be the next conversation in our union.”
With ongoing discussions about whether or not the University will open in the fall, the Union is worried that the workers might not have jobs to return to at the end of Summer or might get reduced hours. Since Bon Appétit only provides health benefits to employees who work more than twenty hours regularly a week, the prospect of cuts to their work hours next fall could mean that workers would be thrown off their health insurance program.
“It’s difficult because our contract with Bon App says that you have to work twenty hours regularly to qualify for health benefits. But the state government only forces employers to provide health benefits once employees work an average of a certain number of hours per year, and seasonal workers like us don’t work summers so it’s more like we have to work forty hours to even qualify.”
Briggs explained that the Union is monitoring this development closely, because it’s been their experience in the past that employers have immediately kicked workers off health insurance once they dipped below the state enforced number of work hours to qualify.
“If the business wants to be very technical as they have been in the past with cutting off people’s health insurance like the day of then a lot of people won’t meet the minimum hours required to qualify for the health insurance,” Briggs said.
In the time being, though, Local 217 calls their workers individually every week to check up on them and runs a hotline to help workers figure out how to collect their stimulus checks and other benefits.
“When workers are laid off, the union protects them and we have a hotline to help them with all the things they need,” Bailey said. “We also do calls with them to ask if they are getting money and food so that we can track that and get help to them if they need it.”
Luke Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hannah Docter-Loeb can be reached at email@example.com