Spangler is not a happy place these days. It is more crowded, less efficient and everyone is confused and slightly irritated. As I rush to class, a woman drops an entire canister of hot coffee while carrying it to Aldrich. I am pretty sure that her regular job does not usually require her to carry that canister by herself. The Harvard dining hall workers are on strike, and everyone on campus seems to agree that they are greatly missed. One of my colleagues was telling me today: “We keep hearing that the dining staff earn more than normal food service employees. Except that they’re not “normal”, they make our days better every day and they go the extra mile every day for us. “
The Strike and the Issues at Stake
Firstly, let’s lay out the facts behind the strike. After 17 sessions of what appears to have been fruitless negotiations, Local 26, the union representing Harvard dining hall workers launched an open-ended strike on Wednesday, October 5. Workers are demanding two things from Harvard: “the ability to earn at least $35,000 a year and a health insurance program that does not shift costs onto those who can least afford it,” said UNITE HERE Local 26 Lead Negotiator Michael Kramer.
Why it got this far
On the one hand, Harvard makes a quite compelling argument for defending its position on its website. Dining service employees are paid above market rates and they are eligible for benefits if they work more than 16 hours a month. The staff’s hourly rate is at a little above $21/ hour much higher than the living wage set at $15.04/hour. Harvard offers a competitive benefits package, including holidays and vacation days, as well as financial assistance for childcare.
But when you look closer, the dining hall staff are not quite as well off. The average dining hall employee only works 38 weeks/ year, due to the seasonal nature of the campus activity. When you look at their yearly salary, dining hall staff are only paid ~$1,865 over the annual living wage, which is not a lot. And while Harvard argues on their website that “A dining services employee at Harvard makes more in 38 weeks at Harvard than someone working year-round earning the City of Cambridge’s “livable wage.”, we can understand that it might not be easy for the employees to find work in the remaining 14 weeks. Also, if you consult the MIT Living Wage calculator, dining hall employees earn less than the living wage if they also care for at least one child.
The second point, however, is much more concerning for both sides. While the state of Massachusetts still has one of the best healthcare laws in the country, rising costs is the main concern for employers. And because this trend is expected to continue in the foreseeable future, employers are shifting more and more of the burden to the employees. Clearly, this hits workers in the lower income brackets more than any other ones. When your annual income is close to the minimum living wage, a deductible or a copay for each doctor’s visit can be unaffordable. So this is why a jump in the co-pay for a doctor’s visit from $40 to $100, as Harvard has proposed, can be unaffordable.
This is an issue close to my heart because I have been working on a startup at HBS in this area. Over the past 7 months I have helped hundreds of patients struggling with their medical bills, and a few of them had the same issues that the Harvard cafeteria staff is struggling with. A $60 copay difference might not sound like a lot of money for many of us, but most people can’t afford to pay it. You don’t exactly have money to spare when your annual salary is $31,000 and you have a multi-person household, with children who have to go to the doctor multiple days a year. And there seems to be a clear indication that people that have to pay more out of pocket tend to avoid going to the doctor altogether, which can lead to much more severe conditions later.
So while we understand Harvard’s position, especially in a year of poor endowment results, it is hard not to empathize with the cafeteria staff. We hope that the two parties reach an agreement soon. In the meantime, all we need to do is be a little patient and have an understanding that these issues are complicated on both sides.
Iulia Iliut (HBS ’17) is the co-founder of BillCrew, an employee benefit that helps employees deal with and reduce medical bills.