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Stanford: For service workers at risk of infection, bare minimum is not enough

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Last Saturday, Students for Workers’ Rights circulated a petition to the campus community demanding that Stanford act immediately to protect, inform and fairly compensate workers during the COVID-19 crisis. On Tuesday, representatives of Students for Workers’ Rights entered Building 10 to demand a response from the administration, in particular President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell, by 9 p.m. that night. On Wednesday, with no response forthcoming, Students for Workers’ Rights planned a sit-in at Building 10, only to find the doors shut and two administration representatives with no direct jurisdiction over service workers (both were involved in Student Affairs) assigned to listen to our concerns. 

As of Thursday, we found the doors to Building 10 locked again. Meanwhile, our petition has over 1,100 signatures, and several hundred concerned community members have emailed the president and provost. Furthermore, two new COVID-19 cases have been announced on campus, and there has been no response from the administration. The only thing resembling a response is a Letter to the Editor in The Daily from Elizabeth Zacharias, vice president for human resources, stating that Stanford is “complying with all provisions of our Collective Bargaining Agreement and Cal/OSHA regulations aimed at protecting workers’ health and safety” — in other words, fulfilling the bare minimum of what is required. Our petition, our demands and the massive accompanying community response are not even mentioned.

With the recent classification of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, it’s clear that the situation is not business as usual — yet, by acting as if compliance with the basic requirements of federal and state law is enough to protect service workers, Stanford is essentially ignoring the magnitude of the crisis by sticking to the status quo. The bare minimum is not only inadequate, but actively insulting to the increased vulnerability service workers face due to their contact with public spaces and germ-filled areas like dining halls and dorm bathrooms. Service workers are afraid not only for themselves, but for their families. There have been multiple accounts of service workers hearing of new cases on campus not from Stanford, but rather from students engaging them in concerned conversation. Stanford’s daily bulletin for coronavirus updates (healthalerts.stanford.edu) is only available in English, making it inaccessible to the many Filipinx and Latinx service workers who are most comfortable reading in Tagalog and Spanish, respectively. Subcontracted workers are fearful for their job security, whether it’s custodial staff at UG-2 or Row staff in Student Organized Services, and they have received no assurances from the administration about the status of their work in light of the closure or scaling down of various campus services. Workers are in a situation where, if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or show symptoms of coronavirus, they have to dip into their existing sick days as Stanford has instituted no form of extra sick leave. Ongoing discussions with the union have produced no new action plans or results in a situation where timely solutions that put workers’ lives over profit are necessary. 

Stanford’s stubbornness is especially disheartening in light of emergency measures being taken at other institutions. Starbucks has instituted 14 days of catastrophe pay for anyone who’s been diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19. At Walmart, employees who contract the virus or are subject to mandatory quarantines will receive up to 14 days of paid leave; in more serious cases, workers can get compensated for up to 26 weeks. And Harvard’s unions are demanding protections that the University could do well to emulate: These include no lost pay for workers amid the closure of campus, additional paid sick leave and free coronavirus testing for unionized workers. This is why, again, Students for Workers’ Rights is calling on Stanford to immediately institute measures such as the introduction of additional paid sick leave; increased wages for service workers who are taking on additional risk; a commitment not to retaliate against workers who decide against working in unsafe conditions; and the institution of proper communication to workers regarding coronavirus updates.

Yet Stanford continues to do nothing for service workers. This inaction cannot be attributed to an administration hamstrung by the impact of coronavirus, considering how swiftly Stanford moved to make major decisions such as canceling Admit Weekend, moving courses online, asking students to leave campus and apply for housing in spring if they need to stay and instituting changes to its financial aid policies for those whom moving would pose a financial difficulty. 

Rather, Stanford’s inaction is the result of a system which prioritizes growing its endowment over people. This administration has hired a cost-cutting corporation to conduct a time and motion study for improving the “efficiency” of already overworked custodial staff; its “Affordability Task Force” released nothing but band-aid solutions after 1.5 years of planning; and its “living wage policy” has remained essentially unchanged since 2007. As we saw with the withdrawal of its General Use Permit application earlier this fall, this is an administration which so balks at the idea of providing comprehensive affordable housing to workers that it decided to halt its own development. This is an administration with a several billion dollar endowment which acts as if it’s financially paralyzed when faced with choices that can save service workers’ lives.

Contact Ethan Chua at [email protected].