Stanford’s campus is known for its beauty. Perfectly landscaped lawns, palm-tree lined roads and a total absence of litter. On sunny days, students flock to its fountains and outdoor spaces. Yet few think about all of the work that goes into maintaining its appearance, as well as keeping the day-to-day operations of the University and its students’ lives running. The janitorial staff, landscaping staff and food service workers, as well as workers in the School of Medicine and Stanford’s National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC), are all integral to keeping the University functional and beautiful. Unfortunately, these workers are not always treated with the respect that they deserve.
According to a survey taken by the primary union for Stanford service workers, SEIU Local 2007, 78% of service workers have felt bullied, harassed or discriminated against in the workplace, 57% of workers are renters, 67% of them say their rent is not affordable and 40% of service workers say working conditions have worsened since 2014.
Workers, especially in the dining halls, face chronic understaffing. For example, in 2018, two workers in Wilbur Hall were placed on administrative leave. This left the rest of the custodial staff understaffed for two full months, meaning that they were expected to do the same amount of work with two fewer people. Residential and Dining Enterprises didn’t respond to this issue until a petition circulated in support of Wilbur service workers calling for an end to the understaffing received 1100 signatures and was published in The Stanford Daily. When smoke on campus from the 2018 California wildfires was at levels deemed a high health risk, classes were cancelled and free masks were offered to students from Stanford’s health center. No masks were provided to workers, many of whom have labor-intensive outdoor jobs.
Difficulties finding affordable housing are common in the Bay Area, with median rents in San Mateo County at about $3500 a month, and high prices hit Stanford’s service workers hard. Some commute up to 6.75 hours per day to get to and from campus, living as far as Stockton or Sacramento because of skyrocketing rents nearer to Stanford. Of the two main properties Stanford administers that service workers can apply for housing to (neither of which have any current below market rate units available), the waitlist for housing units in one is about 800 people long and the other about 200 people long. One anonymous worker wakes up every weekday morning around 4:30 a.m., leaves their house by 5:30 a.m. to catch a 5:45 a.m. Caltrain, and gets to Stanford at 6:12 a.m. in the morning before starting their workday.
Another worker spoke about the physical strain involved in the work they do:
“The reality is that the work we do here is very heavy work … I’ve had to have surgery on both of my eyes … I’ve also had carpal tunnel surgery on my hands. Many of us have surgery on our legs and feet because of complications that arise from walking and being on our feet all day long. The reality is that the work we do has repercussions throughout our entire body … Over time we start to damage our most basic body parts, including our eyes from strain and lack of sleep, and our hands and legs from heavy manual labor.”
However, the current health care plan isn’t affordable for many workers, making it difficult for them to pay for the care they need due to their physically strenuous jobs.
Right now, SEIU Local 2007 and University administrators are in the middle of negotiations for the new contract that will start in September, but Stanford has been reticent in addressing some of the workers’ most urgent demands. One of these demands is for Stanford to stop outsourcing work to contract workers. Subcontracting allows the university to acquire labor while discouraging unionizing, keeping wages low, and withholding benefits from contracted workers that longer-term workers would be eligible for.
The union is also pushing to increase the vacation hour cap to 400. Stanford maintains that workers should not be able to accrue more than 240 earned vacation hours, but this can have serious consequences on the workers’ livelihoods. For example, dining hall workers are often required to take three to eight weeks of unpaid leave during the summer when fewer students are on campus. If they are unable to use large amounts of paid vacation hours during this time, then they are unable to provide for themselves and their families. Workers have stated that during these months they worry about being unable to pay rent or even becoming homeless.
In addition to addressing workers’ demands, Stanford can also do more with respect to workers’ struggles with affordable housing. Stanford hasn’t opened up new affordable housing available for workers to apply for since 2000, and vacancies in the housing they currently have are filled by a lottery system where service workers are extremely low priority. In addition, Stanford’s currently proposed development plan for 2035 contains plans to build housing for faculty and graduate students, but provides no units for staff and other workers. The University can improve housing conditions by prioritizing service workers in the housing lottery for below market rate units, and deliberately setting aside affordable units for them in its development plan.
Ultimately, I want to call attention to the profound irony of a university whose founding purpose is “to promote public welfare by exercising influence on behalf of humanity,” a university with a $26.5 billion endowment known globally for its cutting-edge biomedical research and technological innovation, being unable to meet its own workers’ demands for affordable housing, healthcare and a living wage. When it comes to the service workers which are an undeniable part of its “inclusive and collaborative community,” Stanford can and should do better.
— Arielle DeVito ’21, member of the Stanford Support of Campus Workers’ Coalition
Thanks to Ethan Chua ’20 and the Stanford Support of Campus Workers’ Coalition for their help with this article.
Contact Arielle DeVito at adevito ‘at’ stanford.edu.