Opinion: Stanford’s failure to protect subcontracted workers could have disastrous public health consequences

Opinion by Tyler Bonnen
Dec. 16, 2020, 7:07 p.m.

Last week, the U.S. reported more than 3,000 coronavirus-related deaths in a single day. In anticipation of the inevitable, counties across the Bay Area implemented the state’s Regional Stay Home Order. And Stanford announced its plans to bring over 3,000 undergraduates back to campus.  

As undergraduate and graduate students, we’re deeply concerned about this decision. It’s not just that we have first-hand experience with the University’s mismanagement over the past nine months — the botched attempts at a “campus compact,” the forced evictions during the first wave of the pandemic, or policies that undermine the safety of survivors of sexual assault. We have also been listening to the voices and experiences of workers across campus. 

Subcontracted workers have kept Stanford safe throughout the pandemic. Their work in undergraduate dorms, graduate housing, food service facilities and research laboratories has ensured our well-being, often at great risk to themselves. For those of us still on campus — or hoping to return — we routinely interact with subcontracted workers, often without realizing that their legal relationship to the University makes them especially vulnerable during the pandemic. 

Technically, subcontracted workers are employed by external companies. Stanford uses this legal pretext to avoid responsibility for the health and well-being of their employees. This typically means that subcontracted workers receive lower pay, fewer workplace-related protections and little-to-no healthcare-related services. During the pandemic, Stanford’s lack of responsibility extends to COVID-related testing protocols.

Because of the nature of their workplaces and subcontracted workers’ in close contact with students, the University’s failure to provide subcontracted workers with adequate COVID-related protections has put us all at risk.

When the pandemic began, Stanford neither provided testing for workers nor sick pay upon contracting the novel coronavirus. Alongside the organizing efforts of workers themselves, Students for Workers Rights’ (SWR) raised concerns with this institutional failure. Stanford responded by implementing punitive testing protocols: Workers can choose to be tested, but are then forced to use personal sick days while they self-quarantine. This discretionary policy imposes financial penalties on workers who report their own symptoms — a financial burden that could discourage many from reporting at all. 

In effect, Stanford’s policies have forced workers into a false decision: Choose between a paycheck and personal/public health, all while the University has the resources to protect both. 

Workers are well aware of the risks that COVID-related mismanagement poses: They have consistently raised concerns about working and testing conditions. Principal among these concerns are the increasingly unmanageable workloads brought on by aggressive layoffs. Workers who remain on campus have to choose between doing quality work or facing disciplinary actions for not completing tasks in their allotted time. To make matters worse, many workers have reported an alarming lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the pandemic. This has not diminished their commitment to their work, but has come at significant personal cost: Speaking about their experience cleaning all six floors of a building, one worker told us “Last night, my legs didn’t respond. I couldn’t walk for a while because of work.” 

Instead of addressing these issues — instead of honoring the vital role the workers play in our lives — Stanford and the subcontracting companies it hires have doubled down, placing subcontracted employees in increasingly inhumane working conditions. Fearing longer-term retaliation (e.g. having their hours cut, losing shifts or being laid off entirely), subcontracted workers in these conditions can neither refuse to work nor demand improvements to their working conditions. All the while, Stanford and subcontracting companies play an elaborate game of plausible deniability. It is not hyperbole when we hear from workers that “Stanford has betrayed us.” 

By ignoring the needs of its most essential workers, Stanford is replicating the very same policies that have proven disastrous at the national level. These misguided policies don’t only threaten our community on campus; after working in these unsafe conditions, subcontracted workers go home, often to lower-income communities in Black and brown neighborhoods throughout the Peninsula. These are communities that have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Without addressing these issues, Stanford’s promise to bring over 3,000 students back to campus threatens to have disastrous public health consequences throughout the Bay Area. 

While the University avoids responsibility to subcontracted workers, we believe that they belong to the Stanford community as much as any student, faculty member or direct hire. Indeed, many subcontracted workers have held their current positions for decades, even as the contracted firms that employ them have come and gone. And many of us have enduring friendships with subcontracted workers; we see each other as family, and these relationships make Stanford feel more like home. 

Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) is not simply sounding the alarm: we are organizing. 

For all of December, we are fundraising to meet subcontracted workers’ immediate financial needs. We invite you to contribute to our Community Care Fund, which will distribute money directly into the hands of workers at the end of December. Stanford has refused to provide subcontracted workers with hazard pay throughout the pandemic. But we are confident that, as we saw during our fundraiser in the spring, members of the Stanford community will acknowledge the extraordinary sacrifices workers are making and give in kind.

Beyond these most immediate needs, one must also address Stanford’s employment practices; the unjust conditions faced by subcontracted workers did not begin with the pandemic. We outlined these issues in September’s Reverse Town Hall: beyond COVID-related healthcare guarantees, workers deserve just compensation for essential work, as well as safe and transparent working environments. We will continue to do this work in coalition with student groups across campus who have been outraged by the University’s utter disregard for our wellbeing during the pandemic — as it relates not only to subcontracted workers, but also to the treatment of graduate students, policing on campus, sexual assault and broader issues of representation and equity.

We invite you to join us in this work as we develop systems and practices that enable us to better care for each other: Sign a petition to demonstrate how widespread support is for subcontracted workers; donate to our Community Care Fund or help organize a collection within your own community; and reach out to us directly (on Twitter and Instagram) to get more involved. 

Written on behalf of Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR),
Tyler Bonnen
Kyle Wang
Jianna So
Adam Nayak
Olivia Fu
Arushi Gupta
Chiara Giovanni

Contact Tyler Bonnen at bonnen ‘at’ stanford.edu.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

Follow The Daily on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Contact Tyler Bonnen at opinions 'at' stanforddaily.com

Login or create an account