Stanford’s labor practices during COVID-19 endanger workers’ lives

Opinion by Ethan Chua
April 15, 2020, 3:44 p.m.

On April 13, members of Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) received news from both Stanford Daily reporters and union representatives of UG2 (a national custodial company contracted by Stanford to clean academic buildings) that a UG2 employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19. The UG2 employee is not receiving any additional paid sick leave despite this diagnosis; rather, management is telling them to use their existing paid sick days, which accrue at a rate of four days per year. SWR wants to make this clear: These COVID-19 cases may have been preventable. Stanford’s stubborn refusal to provide its subcontracted workers appropriate protection, information and pay at COVID-19’s height unduly increased the risk of janitorial staff’s exposure to the disease.

Since March 7, SWR has been calling on the Stanford administration to commit to pay continuation for all its employees, including subcontracted employees, throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside protective measures. Pay continuation would entail compensating employees as if they were working their regular hours, regardless of changes in hours or temporary lay-offs due to COVID-19. In addition, SWR has demanded that the administration provide an additional two weeks paid sick leave to all workers in light of the recommended duration for self-quarantine. Community support for our demands has been strong: We’ve released two petitions calling for pay continuation, the latest of which has garnered over 5,000 signatures; raised over $170,000 in mutual aid funds for laid off workers; and organized phone banking sessions where hundreds of concerned community members called the Stanford administration asking for accountability.

In an email sent out to the student body on April 14, Provost Drell and Vice President for Human Resources Elizabeth Zacharias addressed some of our concerns — they extended pay continuation to directly-hired employees until June 15. In addition, they committed to creating a grant program to support Stanford employees facing financial hardships, and promised to support contract firms “in maintaining income and benefits for [their] employees through June 15.” 

While these commitments are welcome, they are also ambiguous — it is unclear what concrete commitment Stanford is making to contracted workers through their promise of “support,” which might mean anything from assisting contracted workers in applications for federal benefits to actually extending them pay continuance. In addition, the email still does not address our demand for the extension of two weeks’ paid sick leave to all Stanford workers, nor does it specify whether contracted workers will be receiving compensation for pay they’ve already lost through layoffs that began in early March. Finally, Stanford’s slow response time unduly increased the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for contracted workers; even if the email’s recommendations were to be implemented, the UG2 worker who currently has COVID-19 would get no additional sick days.

Urgent action on Stanford’s part could have decreased workers’ risk to exposure

In the days leading up to the closure of campus in early March, UG2 employees were told to come into work with little additional protective gear, such as face masks, despite increasing concerns around the spread of COVID-19. When they asked about potential additions to paid sick leave, they were told they would have to use existing paid sick days. And as Stanford began cutting down on directly-hired personnel, UG2 workers were saddled with additional responsibilities, such as cleaning up dormitory rooms in Okada for students moving in from other residences.

The experience of UG2 workers is emblematic of a systematic failure on Stanford’s part to take care of its workers during the pandemic. As cases began to be reported in residences, the custodians who cleaned these residences were not informed. In one case, a student was exposed to COVID-19 and had a bathroom designated for self-quarantine. ResEd instructed her residence dean to make her housing building manager aware in order to inform the workers who cleaned that bathroom. When she ran into a worker in the bathroom and told her, she realized that the worker had not known for five days that she was cleaning the bathroom of a quarantining student. Even as students got periodic health alerts during the height of the crisis, workers did not receive the same information: In multiple cases, students were the first to inform their custodial staff that Stanford affiliates had tested positive for COVID-19. The administration’s systematic disregard of its service workers’ health and well-being has brought us into this frightening situation.

If Stanford had promptly committed to paying continuance for all its contracted workers, UG2 could have reduced its workforce — and therefore workers’ overall risk to exposure — in an equitable way, instead of suddenly laying off about 130 of its employees without pay or additional sick leave. If Stanford had provided UG2 employees additional sick leave, many would have been able to appropriately self-quarantine instead of risking exposure to their coworkers. If Stanford had provided workers with additional protective equipment and health information, then these workers would have had a genuine chance at safety from the pandemic — and, at the very least, a safety net of paid sick days to weather potential exposure.

Stanford must act now to protect all its workers

In light of the reported COVID-19 case, it’s clear that Stanford’s most recent response is still inadequate when it comes to meeting workers’ needs. SWR thus reiterates its main demands, for which it has been advocating since early March: Stanford should unambiguously commit to pay continuance for all its workers, including contracted ones, through the end of COVID-19; Stanford should provide two weeks’ additional paid sick leave to all its workers, including subcontracted workers; and Stanford should systematically provide workers information they need to stay safe in a way that is accessible to workers who may not speak English (such as many Spanish- and Tagalog-speaking service workers). In addition, Stanford should affirm its commitment to workers’ health and wellbeing, regardless of whether they’re subcontracted, by covering the cost of healthcare for the UG-2 workers who have been exposed to COVID-19. SWR, now more than ever, stands by its demands.

Sign our petition.

Donate to our mutual aid fund.

Join us in calling administrators on Friday to demand justice for affected workers, in particular the UG-2 worker diagnosed with COVID-19.

Contact Ethan Chua of Students for Workers’ Rights at ezlc327 ‘at’

Login or create an account