ABOVE: The Rockefeller University

On March 15, as the novel coronavirus swept through New York City, biophysics PhD student Donovan Phua and the rest of the Rockefeller University community learned that the research institution would be shutting down in three days. Only essential labs would remain open, including those that had quickly pivoted their research to COVID-19. 

There was no word of changes to Phua’s graduate student salary. Along with faculty members and postdocs, he was instructed to begin working remotely once the university closed, he says. As far as he could tell, staff salaries would remain the same.

The next night, Phua was working in his lab and talked with two custodial employees about the impending shutdown, he tells The Scientist. He asked what was happening with their jobs. According to Phua, the employees, who work for a company contracted by Rockefeller, told him...

More than 700 faculty members at Stanford University signed a letter in which they agreed to donate a portion of their wages toward supporting sub-contracted workers.

That conversation prompted Phua and his peers to start a campaign in support of these furloughed workers. Students at a number of universities have been advocating for the payment of employees, and especially contracted workers who are more vulnerable to layoffs, as campuses shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Phua raised the issue with the Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative (RiSi), a student-run organization supporting minorities in science and economically disadvantaged groups. Together, the members decided to investigate which campus staff were potentially affected by the university’s looming shutdown, Phua says. They talked to security guards, stockroom workers, housing employees, and animal caretakers, all of whom Phua says were direct hires of the university who would continue to receive payment. A sub-contracted food service employee also said she had been notified the night before the shutdown that she would be paid, according to Phua, even though she would no longer be working. Custodial workers, he says, were the only employees they identified who were set to be furloughed (The Scientist could not confirm this with Rockefeller, as the university did not respond to requests for comment).

The cleaning staff are “definitely a group we’re indebted to for maintaining and helping us do our jobs day to day,” says César Vargas, a PhD student in neuroecology and co-president of RiSi. “It was really kind of sad to hear that they might not get the same treatment that other groups on campus were getting.” While Vargas says he understands the logic, the university’s apparent decision not to pay custodial workers wasn’t “the trusting response you would want initially.”

Phua reached out to Alex Kogan, the associate vice president of plant operations and housing at Rockefeller, on March 18, and asked whether everyone who worked at the university—including contracted employees—would be getting paid while the campus was closed. At the same time, Phua says, RiSi members began to draft a petition to pay service workers during the shutdown. Within 24 hours, according to Vargas, they had collected several hundred signatures, including those from two heads of labs.

Emails reviewed by The Scientist show that a day after Phua’s first message to Kogan, the university confirmed that the sub-contracted custodial staff would receive payment for a period of four weeks.

“Relieved is an understatement,” says Tony Rexach, a custodial worker who has worked at Rockefeller for three years, recalling what it felt like to learn he would still receive his paycheck. “I was ecstatic.” Rexach tells The Scientist that before he heard the news, he had been thinking, “How am I going to do this? How can I go through this and survive this? And it’s not like you can just not get paid and look for another job,” he says, “because everybody is going through this. The city is shut down, just about.” 

Similar campaigns have found success on other university campuses as sub-contracted workers face uncertainties regarding their employment status. At Duke University, for instance, the Duke Graduate Students Union teamed up with local labor unions to push for financial protection for sub-contracted workers after the university confirmed that faculty and staff would be paid during the shutdown, according to The Chronicle. Duke later announced that the university would pay furlough wages until May 31 for all full-time contract workers who were scheduled for at least 30 hours per week before the campus closed, according to a second article in the outlet.

After organizing efforts at Harvard University yielded a petition that gathered more than 7,000 signatures, the university agreed to pay contracted service and trade workers whose jobs cannot be performed remotely, or who don’t currently have work they are able to perform on campus, through May 28, according to a university statement. And students at the University of Virginia campaigned for an emergency fund for furloughed employees that exceeds $3 million, reports The Daily Progress.

See “How Scientists Can Volunteer to Help Fight COVID-19”

At Rockefeller, Phua and his peers later learned that as the ongoing pandemic forced the university to stay shuttered longer than initially anticipated, the fate of contract workers changed.

Angie Arroyo, a food service worker at Rockefeller, says she was thrilled upon learning the night before the shutdown that sub-contracted employees in her department would be compensated. “That was something great to hear,” she says. “We were really grateful that they lent their hand to us and wanted to pay us for this time off.”

However, layoffs eventually took place at Rockefeller. Arroyo confirms to The Scientist that after a month of being paid, she is currently laid off and has filed for unemployment. Emails seen by The Scientist state that the health insurance of Rockefeller’s sub-contracted food service employees has been paid for through July 31. Arroyo says she’s using her rainy day savings and hopes to be back working at the university by May 15.

Incomplete success

Other grassroots efforts to protect contract workers have achieved limited success. Students at Stanford University have gone to great lengths in advocating for the payment of furloughed employees. “Around March 7, things started to snowball,” says Adam Nayak, a sophomore studying civil and environmental engineering. Nayak is a core group member of Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) at Stanford, and reports that shortly after the university announced on March 10 that classes during the spring term would be conducted online and that students living in campus housing should leave if they were able to do so, SWR was informed that 55 sub-contracted kitchen staff members would be laid off. 

The student group mobilized, drafting a petition that asked for fair pay, protection, and information for campus service workers during the pandemic. They then raised more than $100,000 for the workers, who Nayak says were “receiving two weeks of pay continuance and then nothing.” (The Scientist’s attempts to reach Stanford for confirmation were unanswered.) The funds are currently in the process of being distributed, according to Nayak. Nine days later, the university agreed to interim pay continuation for regular employees in a statement that did not address sub-contracted workers.

It was really kind of sad to hear that they might not get the same treatment that other groups on campus were getting.

—César Vargas, Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative

Shortly thereafter, Nayak and other SWR members learned that roughly 70 employees of UG-2, a contractor that supplies janitorial and grounds workers on the Stanford campus, had been laid off as of the last week of March with no pay continuance, according to Nayak and as reported by The Stanford Daily. That number was projected to increase to more than 130 employees by April 30, The Stanford Daily reports. 

SWR then released an Action Network petition asking for pay continuance, hazard pay, two additional weeks of paid sick leave, personal protective equipment, and regular COVID-19 information updates for sub-contracted workers. The petition has now received more than 5,500 signatures. The group also started a new fundraiser for emergency relief for all workers, which has raised close to $100,000, according to Nayak. Members have also emailed and called administrators, coordinated social media campaigns, and received official approval from the Associated Students of Stanford University undergraduate senate in support of their mission. Additionally, Nayak reports, more than 700 faculty members signed a letter in which they agreed to donate a portion of their wages toward supporting sub-contracted workers.

After initially citing financial challenges, Stanford recently announced that it would offer resources alongside those provided by the federal government to maintain income and benefits for sub-contracted employees through June 15. Stanford did not respond to The Scientist’s request for clarification on its current policy, which has caused concern among SRW members that it may not fully cover all workers’ pre-shutdown income and benefits.

This most recent statement, Nayak says, doesn’t specify how the university intends to support workers. “It’s not to say that we don’t have any optimism that the institution will do the right thing or can do the right thing, or that we don’t believe them when they say that they’re going to support workers,” Nayak explains. “It’s just that we don’t know the details.”

Ethan Chua, an anthropology major in his senior year at Stanford who is also a member of SRW, says he has “been very disillusioned over the last month” by the university’s response. He found out on April 22 from the labor union representing the custodial staff that Stanford was only paying the sub-contractors’ benefits, but not their wages. The fight continued on April 23, when the SRW held a Zoom press conference featuring California state senate candidate Jackie Fielder; Stockton, California, Mayor Michael Tubbs; statements from former presidential hopeful Julian Castro and Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-TX); and a number of laid off service workers who shared their statements and stories.

For Nayak, the work of sub-contracted employees is an integral part of his education at Stanford. “Faculty in every department have relationships with their custodial and janitorial staff who they see every single day,” Nayak says. “And without our service workers, Stanford as an institution could not operate, and that includes research practices, that includes classes, that includes having office hours in the buildings—literally all of these services are being provided to students so the educational goals and values can persist.”

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