Students and the local union representing Brandeis Sodexo dining workers are advocating for all workers to receive health benefits and for laid off workers to be paid. All dining workers are receiving health benefits, according to an April 20 email from vice president of campus operations Lois Stanley to The Brandeis Hoot. Stanley added that Sodexo examined the options for its employees to ensure they would all remain financially stable during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Stanley emailed the community on April 9 that “all their employees who work in dining services at Brandeis will receive the equivalent of what they would have earned prior to the pandemic through May 17.”
Nicki Morris, a communication specialist from the union that represents Brandeis dining staff, UNITE HERE Local 26, told The Hoot in an April 16 email that the university has agreed to pay workers for their guaranteed hours before the policy went into effect, but that these “guaranteed” hours were already reduced from what they had been before the crisis began.
“They have not agreed to back pay it. So it was started on March 30, but they started losing hours in mid-March,” wrote Morris in the email. “That is all that they have agreed to. They have not agreed to pay anyone who is on layoff.”
Morris said that other universities in the Boston area, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University and Tufts University have agreed to extend medical benefits and pay until commencement so that workers could stay at home and protect those with personal health risks from COVID-19. Harvard Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp announced that Harvard will extend guaranteed pay and benefits to directly employed staff and contract workers through June 28 as it faces a $415 million shortfall this fiscal year, according to an article by The Harvard Crimson.
“Until Brandeis workers have the means and the medical coverage to stay home, work will remain involuntary on campus,” Morris wrote. “This will force workers to come to work to pay the bills, putting themselves, their loved ones, and the public at large at risk.”
Stanley wrote in the April 9 email to the community, however, that all Sodexo employees will continue to have access to health insurance. She also told The Hoot in an email on April 20 that all Sodexo employees at Brandeis will continue to receive these benefits, regardless of whether or not they work.
“Employees who are not working do not have to pay their usual monthly insurance premium in April and May, because these two months are being paid in full by a health insurance trust (members include Sodexo, other employers and Unite Here) which provides employees with health insurance,” Stanley wrote in the April 20 email to The Hoot. “Employees who are continuing to work are paying their usual monthly insurance premiums while employers (including Sodexo) continue to pay their usual portion of insurance premiums as well.”
Stanley addressed how various dining workers would be compensated in the April 9 email. She said that those who continue to be scheduled to work on campus will be paid for the same hours that they would’ve been paid before the pandemic from ongoing wages, regardless of whether or not they are working less. Others were given the option to work as part of the satellite operation in Usdan to provide meals to healthcare workers in local area hospitals.
“All Sodexo staff—those who decide to work in Usdan and those who do not—will receive at least as much as they earned before the pandemic from ongoing wages (for those who work in Usdan) or from unemployment insurance and the federal stimulus supplement (for those who do not),” wrote Stanley in the April 9 email.
The student-run group, Brandeis Labor Coalition (BLC), however, says that this pay isn’t enough and the work isn’t actually optional.
“This work cannot be considered voluntary since workers who cannot survive without this pay and face barriers in receiving unemployment insurance may have no choice but to put themselves at risk and continue to work,” said BLC and Brandeis Uprooted and Rising in a joint video statement posted on April 19. “The horrifying consequences of this were demonstrated just last week: the union notified us that two dining workers tested positive for COVID-19, and more than a dozen are in quarantine.”
The two infections among dining services staff were confirmed by Stanley in a May 8 email to The Hoot.
According to Mass.gov, those who receive unemployment will get approximately half of their average weekly wage up to a maximum of $823 in addition to $25 per dependent child up to an amount that is half of their unemployment insurance (UI) check. This amount is in addition to the $600 a week that workers will receive from the federal stimulus package, which for many will be more than they would have made during an average work week, according to a New York Times article. Many people have not yet received their stimulus check, so they cannot utilize this income yet.
“Now because of COVID-19, my income is cut 50 percent, but I have to face all my bills,” said Lucia Hsiung, a senior cashier at Brandeis in an April 16 video posted by UNITE HERE Local 26 on Twitter. “I’m very worried and scared. I know a lot of my coworkers are the same as me.”
As of April 27, however, “virtually all of the employees with whom Sodexo has had contact reported that they have received their state unemployment benefits, as well as the supplemental federal payments related to the CARES Act,” according to the university’s Operations and Events Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page.
Sodexo says that it has not received concerns from individuals or the union about pay or increased cost of health coverage, but in response to the concern that people have demonstrated, it will be reaching out to employees and the union directly, according to the university’s Operations and Events FAQ page.
Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) and other local student organizers set up collaborative phone banks to support outsourced dining workers at Brandeis University, Emerson College, Lesley University, Northeastern University and Simmons University, according to a Lesley University Covid-19 Coalition Facebook post.
The first phone banking day, April 20, took place five days after The Tufts Daily, the independent student newspaper of Tufts University, posted an editorial titled “Tufts sets moral example by providing full wages amid COVID-19 pandemic.” The editorial called for neighboring peer institutions such as Brandeis University and Northeastern University to “follow the example set by Tufts in prioritizing its invaluable staff through the COVID-19 pandemic.”
On April 20, between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., over 180 calls were made to President Ron Liebowitz, executive vice president for finance and administration Stewart Uretsky, Provost Lisa Lynch and vice president of campus operations Lois Stanley to call for dining workers to be paid, according to the BLC Facebook page. On May 4, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., over 200 calls were made to Liebowitz, Uretsky, Lynch, Stanley and chief financial officer and treasurer Sam Solomon. According to a May 3 Facebook post by BLC, students called for others to “Zoom-bomb” Liebowitz’s Zoom community office hours on May 5 to demand that dining workers be paid. BLC also created virtual backgrounds and profile pictures saying “YOU CALL THIS SOCIAL JUSTICE?”, “PAY AND BENEFITS NOW FOR DINING WORKERS!” AND “TRANSPARENCY NOW!” for students to use to draw attention on Zoom calls.
“Even for those who are able to apply for unemployment, it is often not enough money to sustain them and their families for this indefinite amount of time,” reads the joint statement from BLC and Brandeis Uprooted and Rising. “Thus, most of the dining workers are left extremely vulnerable in the midst of this pandemic.”
“We would not be able to support the nutritional needs of our on-campus students if these employees were not still coming to work,” wrote Stanley in an April 20 email to The Hoot. “We are extremely grateful to these employees who are supporting our students and essential staff with meals, and working with Brandeis to support our region’s health care workers and patients through the meals being delivered to hospitals.”
Boston 25 News said that its investigative team, 25 Investigates, has been contacted by “hundreds of people who are still waiting to file and receive a much-needed paycheck” and wrote that the Department of Unemployment Assistance is backlogged and underfunded. Up to 80 million people received their federal stimulus check on April 17, paper checks started being mailed on April 24, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients will be paid by early May and joint filers with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $198,000, the cutoff minimum stimulus payment, will receive theirs in early September, according a Business Insider article.
Brandeis’ Coronavirus/COVID-19 Health Information page posts weekly updates about the university’s COVID-19 response.
Editor’s note: Teresa Shi contributed reporting. This is a developing story.