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Lesley Community Members Fight for Furloughed Workers

All Lesley community members are finding their lives uprooted and altered, to some degree, due to COVID-19. However, for countless Lesley dining hall, custodial, and public safety staff members whose contracts were terminated by the University without pay and benefits, the pandemic has been especially destructive.

Suddenly, these workers have found themselves in a precarious and vulnerable situation; they’re unable to provide for themselves and their loved ones in the middle of a global crisis. Local 26, the dining workers’ union, “was able to secure medical benefits for Lesley dining hall workers… but not wages,” meaning that these folks are still without regular pay. However, other Lesley employees, including public safety and custodial staff, are not represented by this union. Therefore, these same benefits are not extended to them.

Historically, workers have had to battle to obtain their basic rights at Lesley. The administration has been quick to place the blame on subcontractor Bon Appetit, rather than taking any responsibility for these men and women who work on our campus. This lack of accountability is still evident today.

In response to what is being done to the workers, several students and faculty members are mobilizing on their behalf. They see this decision as one that contradicts the togetherness and sense of community that Lesley promotes so passionately.  The University, one that markets itself as socially aware and morally just, has now left a crucial part of its community, who are disproportionately workers of color, without pay and benefits.  So, students have stepped in, to speak up where they believe their University has failed to do so. They’ve taken to social media, where they are expressing their opposition to Lesley’s unfair practices.

They’ve launched a Facebook page, as well as an Instagram account, @justiceforlesleyworkers, which has over 200 followers. Their profile picture, a fist held resolutely in the air, reflects the seriousness and intensity behind their cause. This isn’t just an Instagram page—this is a movement. A hashtag in their bio, #IStandWithLesleyWorkers, encourages other Lesley students to join the cause.

The students behind the page even created their own Week of Action. This virtual demonstration consisted of social media storms, call-ins to Lesley administration, and a barrage of comments on Lesley’s Instagram posts, “demanding wages and benefits for workers.”

However, the cornerstone of this student movement is the creation of a petition on The Action Network. The petition first argues that Lesley University could easily pay its workers by allocating money from other sources. The 2020 CARE Act, a law passed on March 27 to provide economic relief to institutions struggling due to COVID-19, includes the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, from which money will be distributed to “institutions of higher education.” From this Fund, the University was set to receive $1,997,859. Interestingly enough, the bill specifically mentions that recipients of these funds must retain current employees to the ‘maximum extent practicable.’ In order to be eligible to receive emergency funding, the University needs to hold up their end of the bargain. They aren’t.

Another option is that the highest paid Lesley employees take pay cuts. According to the petition, “a 9% pay cut for Lesley’s 21 highest salaried employees” could free up more than $4 million to be allocated to “the University’s 60 laid off food service workers through the end of the semester.”  The second half of the petition focuses on the treatment that students would like to see these workers receive. They ask that workers are given “regular wages and benefits” through the end of the semester, consistent with measures taken at other local colleges like Harvard University.

They also demand that the food service, custodial, and public safety workers who must continue to provide essential services on campus receive “premium hazard pay” for their efforts and are provided with the necessary precautions, like masks, to protect themselves.

Finally, the petition asks for modified sick leave policies, allowing workers to care for themselves or a dependent in the case of COVID-19 exposure. Students ask for workers to receive “full pay and benefits” while they are out on sick leave caring for themselves or a loved one, without this time being deducted from their PTO. As of this article’s publication, there are 871 signatures on the group’s online petition.

The students’ initiative has gained traction, and not just within the Lesley community. An Instagram post from their profile on May 8 attests that, “A City Councilperson and the Mayor of Cambridge have agreed to co-sponsor a resolution in support of Lesley University custodial, dining hall, and public safety workers being paid and provided with medical benefits.” According to a letter circulating for supporters and faculty members to sign, the resolution supports the “dining hall, public safety, and custodial workers” who were “furloughed without pay and medical benefits.” These folks “have now gone two rent cycles without consistent pay;” during a pandemic, this increases the likelihood of food insecurity and one’s inability to pay their bills. Students were urged to send emails to City Council members, asking them to support this resolution and advocate for Lesley workers.

 Cambridge City Councillor Quinton Zondervan, who authored the resolution, responded by email to my request for a comment. He said he was compelled to write up the document after “members of the Lesley community reached out” and requested local governmental support. But before creating the resolution, Zondervan says, “[he] had signed [the group’s] petition already,” showcasing his willingness to “support workers in asking for equitable treatment.” Other members of City Council, “including the Mayor [of Cambridge],” have shown their support as well, by agreeing to co-sponsor the resolution.

 The resolution that Mr. Zondervan authored addresses the concerns of the Lesley student petition before “go[ing] on record in solidarity with all Lesley University workers and in support of the demands of the community petition.”

The City Council remained true to their word. On May 11, 2020 at 5:30 p.m., the resolution, sponsored by Councillor Zondervan, along with Councillor Dennis J. Carlone, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, and Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, was unanimously adopted.

While the City Council made the final decision, Lesley students fought hard for the outcome they wanted to see. Brianna Fougere, a rising senior, is involved in organizing student-led efforts on behalf of the dining hall, public safety, and custodial workers at Lesley. According to Fougere, ten Lesley community members “gathered to make public comments through Zoom” during the virtual City Council meeting in which the resolution was voted on.

It wasn’t just this handful of community members who have been showing up for Lesley workers. Fougere reiterated that, among “workers, students, alumni, faculty, and community members,” there has been widespread, near-complete support. Their petition has received hundreds of signatures. “127 phone calls” were made to Lesley administrators “over the course of two phone banks.” The administration, however, has been entirely unsupportive in return. Fougere remarks that officials have been “silent,” adding that “they have not been transparent in their decision-making at all.”

As mentioned before, this is not a new story. The Lesley Public Post reported back in 2013 that the Bon Appetit workers faced “backlash” when first trying to unionize. In 2014, after officially becoming a union, they tried to secure a living wage by rallying and protesting in the Doble Quad. Then, when a petition “demanding fair working conditions and a living wage for cafeteria members” was “presented to Vice President for Administration Marylou Batt, [she] was either unable or unwilling to accept the petition.”

In 2018, Bon Appetit workers and student activists rallied together to “[secure] a minimum annual salary of $35,000” after much hesitation from the administration. While Lesley administration tried to point fingers at Bon Appetit, criticizing them for workers’ low wages and lack of benefits, “the colleges who contract with Bon Appetit, and not the company Bon Appetit itself, are the determining parties responsible for deciding the wages of the employees…”

In other words, there’s simply no excuse. Any past or present lack of action represents a lack of interest on behalf of Lesley University, rather than a disengaged Bon Appetit. Administration has shown, time and time again, their unwillingness to stand by and protect their workers.

A recent example of this: Fougere alerted me to a video posted to Lesley University’s YouTube channel. The video, titled “President Janet Steinmayer’s Message to Students,” is a thank-you from Lesley administration to the student body, “praising [them] for their success during the pandemic.” In the video, President Steinmayer expresses her admiration for Lesley students’ “unparalleled dedication to… helping others.” Fougere and her peers, however, recognized the irony in this message. The President was celebrating their efforts, while simultaneously ignoring their organizing on behalf of the struggles of dining hall, custodial, and public safety workers. Apparently, “helping others” is welcome only in certain forms.

Fougere and her peers, recognizing a crucial opportunity to speak out, left comments on the YouTube video. In turn, the commenting function was promptly disabled on this YouTube video. The video’s status is also unlisted, so you won’t be able to find it by typing the video title into the search bar. This means that the “video will not appear in any of YouTube’s public spaces,” although it’s unclear whether this change was made before or after the student comments were posted.

There is one sliver of hope, however: the power of the student voice. In the past, students have petitioned, picketed, confronted administration, and been vocal about their distaste for the University’s practices. When students speak out and show up in droves, the University is forced to listen and make changes.

So students, keep using your voices.  This is a fight that involves all of us, whether or not we’re personally affected. We cannot rise up and declare ourselves a socially conscious University if we are willing to let a vulnerable portion of our community go unpaid and unprotected during a global pandemic. Our administration’s treatment of Lesley workers will come back to reflect on our University and, by extension, each of us personally.

This Lesley administration has a unique opportunity to rewrite history, to reverse a long-standing disconnect between themselves and their workers. However, their silence on the matter is deafening and speaks volumes. But until they choose to take action, students will continue  speaking out on behalf of these workers, and fighting for them in a way their University seems unwilling to.

Students are asked to consider signing the group’s petition for workers’ wages and benefits to be restored, which can be found at tinyurl.com/LesleyCovid.

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