Image credit: Sebastian Reyes
“Hey Harvard, you can’t hide! We can see your greedy side!” served as the morning wake-up call for students living in the Harvard Yard on Wednesday. Harvard University Dining Service workers and Harvard students alike are joining picket lines at dining halls across campus to put pressure on the University as contract negotiations continue. Disputes over health care changes are a major cause of stalled negotiations between the University and Local 26. Workers claim that under the plan Harvard has proposed as part of the new contract, health care costs will increase unreasonably and have drastic, if unintended, consequences for the Harvard community as a whole. Higher out-of-pocket costs jeopardize the the livelihoods of the families of HUDS workers, who earn an average annual salary of $33,879. Harvard’s justification for the changes is that costs in healthcare are rising faster than inflation and it is not wholly their responsibility as employers to foot the bill. Yet this reasoning has fallen short of resolving the dispute because it fails to recognize that the issue runs deeper than profit margins: HUDS workers, as an important part of the Harvard community, want to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect.
Perhaps the most damning analysis of the health care plan proposed by the University was delivered by students of the Harvard Medical School Class of 2019. Comparing the Harvard health plan to those available through MassHealth, the state-sponsored healthcare program, their analysis showed that for a single-income family of three earning $30,000, health care would cost around $3,000 more per year through Harvard than through the state. If such a family required emergency medical care, costs could constitute up to 16 percent of annual income. This proportion is a “catastrophic expenditure” according to HMS faculty and parameters set by the World Health Organization.
The HMS analysis, according to a statement from Harvard spokesperson Tania DeLazuriaga, is not truly representative of Harvard’s proposal because “the example depicting costs for a severe illness is rather extreme” and that most workers will not face such catastrophic costs. This last point is feeble, at best. Writing off HMS’ assessment as irrelevant because it uses an extreme scenario shows a fundamental lack of concern for the health of dining workers. There should be no caveats in Harvard’s provision of affordable healthcare to its employees. Harvard should hold itself to a standard of health care under which no employee will face prohibitive medical costs.
None of the statements the administration has released sufficiently addresses Harvard’s motives for changing the health plan. Yes, health care costs are rising, but the issue on the table is whose responsibility it is to shoulder these increasing costs. Why is Harvard looking to cut costs in a manner that burdens its most financially vulnerable employees? For University employees with higher annual salaries, Harvard’s new health plan is a manageable expense. HUDS workers tell a more harrowing story of living on the edge of poverty in an area with a high cost of living. This cost increase, they worry, will push many workers over the edge. While Harvard boasts that HUDS employees receive some of the highest hourly wages in the industry, long periods of time off during school breaks cause average annual incomes of dining staff to fall only slightly above what the City of Cambridge considers a “living wage.” In a panel at the Harvard Law School on September 30, HUDS workers shared the tough decisions they would face under the new plan. “Do I go to the doctor or do I go to the grocery store?” wondered one panelist. A middle-aged dining staff member recounted the challenge of providing for not only his immediate family but also his mother and grandmother. He had recently assumed the role of caretaker for both, and he worried that under the new plan, he would not be able to afford the extensive medical care both require.
How does the University reconcile its image of wealth with this deflection of financial responsibility? How does it justify the magnitude of the costs the new health plan imposes? The administration’s answer here is telling: “Harvard has been committed to working with Local 26 in good faith to reach a new agreement that recognizes our colleagues’ important contributions while supporting the University’s core mission of research, teaching and learning.” The implication, then, is that the work of HUDS and other service staff don’t contribute to this mission. Is the administration really so short sighted as to miss that fact that the support and hard work of HUDS workers are intrinsic to the well-being of the Harvard Community? Professor Robert Muirhead, then an assistant professor of government, summed up this contradiction during a 2001 debate on living wages: “The work that makes Harvard possible makes workers part of Harvard.” Spending on academic resources is obviously central to Harvard’s mission, but it alone will not create a flourishing institution. “The big things [matter too],” wrote Muirhead, “like healthcare and wages.”
Edward Childs, head chef at Adams House and HUDS employee of 40 years, also rejects the “academics first” argument. “We don’t think it has anything to do with academics or the life of the Harvard community,” explains Childs. He thinks it’s simply about profit. Speaking at Friday’s rally in Harvard Yard, Harvard Law School student Collin Poirot ’18 agreed. “It begs the question: who is the administration representing? Whose interests are they working for?” Moments later, he answered his own question: “It’s shareholders. It’s the top-earning class.”
It’s currently unclear how long the strike will last before both parties can come to an agreement. Harvard’s dismissal of workers’ concerns over health care costs reveals a disconnect between Harvard, the business, and Harvard, the academic institution and learning community. The issue of whom Harvard serves parallels the question of who Harvard is. “We consider ourselves Harvard,” says Childs. The majority of undergraduate students and representatives of every graduate school who support the strike agree. But in brushing aside the concerns and well-being of HUDS workers, the administration supports its image of aloof wealth and elitism. If Harvard does not want to alienate itself from its students and staff, it should strongly reconsider its position against HUDS workers in this negotiation.