The coronavirus pandemic reveals a lot about how powerful institutions choose to treat their workers, including subcontracted workers. Many universities have done the right thing. Stanford has not.
Large universities, including Stanford, use contractors to hire workers for less glamorous but essential activities to run campuses, including janitorial, security and cafeteria services. Now that campuses are closed at least through the spring, these workers are not needed.
Elite institutions including MIT, the University of Chicago, Duke and the University of Southern California have agreed to continue paying these workers. Harvard also agreed to do so on Friday, after more than 7,000 people in its community called for full compensation for all subcontracted workers through the end of the semester.
But Stanford, despite a March 16 statement committing to paying “full-time and benefits-eligible part-time (‘regular’) employees” whose work is being disrupted by coronavirus, has not made the same commitment to subcontracted workers.
What’s particularly disappointing is that Stanford is far better endowed than universities that have done better by their employees. Its endowment of $27.7 billion, for example, dwarfs those of MIT ($17.5 billion), USC ($9.5 billion), Duke ($8.6 billion) and the University of Chicago ($8.5 billion).
Some people, including professor Tyler Cowen at George Mason University, believe that a university’s endowment should be dedicated to education and innovation. This view, however, neglects to acknowledge that the operational functions that many contract workers perform allow faculty and students to focus on education and innovation. Supporting contract workers through this crisis is, in fact, a long-term investment in the vibrancy of Stanford’s academic and innovation potential.
Through subcontracting, Stanford cuts costs through pay stratification (subcontracted custodians are paid about $3.50 per hour less than regular hires) and erodes collective bargaining power (many subcontracted workers are not unionized).
We reached out to a worker we know in the Graduate School of Business (GSB) Arbuckle cafeteria. The cafeteria worker replied that she was told the cafeteria would be closed at least until April 13 and that she should file for unemployment. Now the cafeteria will be closed at least until the end of the term, in June. The cafeteria worker is a Filipino immigrant in her 50s with no other source of income. Her Facebook page states she has worked at the GSB since early 2018, even though she is contracted by Bon Appetit rather than hired directly by the University, illustrating that it can be confusing for workers when institutions try to distance themselves by using vendors as intermediaries.
Bon Appetit runs the cafeteria at the business school. The company released a statement stating that those “who have the resources to do so have stepped forward to help cushion the impact on our employees.” These institutions include MIT and the University of Chicago, which also use Bon Appetit for their dining services.
We heard from a subcontracted custodian who cleans academic buildings at Stanford that custodians were still being asked to come to work, even after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide order to “shelter in place.” When the custodian requested to stay at home to obey the shelter-in-place order, he was told he would have to dig into his existing sick or vacation days since contractors weren’t guaranteed pay.
Stanford uses several subcontractors, including UG-2, a national custodial service that deploys 230 workers to the University, and Student Organized Services, a group of 56 food service workers in undergraduate facilities. Petitions originated by Stanford staff, the undergraduate group Students for Workers’ Rights and students at the law school, each with thousands of signatures, have called on the University to extend the base rate of pay to all subcontracted workers through the end of the spring semester. Students, faculty and alumni have raised more than $100,000 for the food service workers in undergraduate facilities. Why are charitable individuals covering contractor salaries while the University sits on a $27.7 billion endowment?
When asked for comment, Stanford responded, “We appreciate your thoughtful attention to the well-being of people working in our community in this extraordinary period of disruption and change. The university is actively reviewing all of these issues as it also confronts an increasingly difficult financial picture, and as it also works to support the other emergency financial efforts it has undertaken in support of students and employees. We appreciate the perspectives of everyone in our community on these issues.”
This is not about an inability to pay contract workers. It is about an unwillingness to do so. These workers are caught between the University and its vendor, neither of which wants to accept responsibility for the workers’ well-being. The University claims the workers are employees of the contractors and should be their financial burden; the contractors say they’re merely an intermediary — that the workers are always paid by the University.
Powerful institutions with rich cash reserves need to step in to support all workers — including subcontracted workers — during these turbulent and uncertain times.
Alissa Orlando MBA ’20 operates a platform, IndyHub, which advocates for and administers company-sponsored benefits for contingent workers.
Ethan Chua ’20 is an organizer with Stanford Students for Workers’ Rights.
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