After pressure from Stanford students, faculty and alumni concerned about contracted service workers who were laid off during the campus shutdown, the university announced Tuesday that it would work with contract firms to maintain their pay and benefits through June 15.
Stanford had originally said it would not be paying workers employed by independent contractors, including janitors and cooks who work in campus cafes and residences, to "minimize impacts to our regular workforce to the greatest extent possible" as the university faces a "serious financial challenge" due to the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, however, university officials said they will work with contract firms, including UG2, which provides janitorial services, and Student Organized Services, which employs cooks in the kitchens of campus sorority and fraternity houses, to continue pay and benefits. Other contract firms employ staff who provide child care, cleaning and sanitation, security, and transit services at Stanford.
"With Stanford resources and the resources offered by the government, these firms will be supported in maintaining income and benefits for these employees through June 15," Provost Persis Drell and Vice President for Human Resources Elizabeth Zacharias wrote in an announcement.
This marked a victory for the grassroots advocacy campaign led by students pushing their university to support low-wage workers for whom the sudden job loss meant difficulty paying rent and putting food on the table. But the students are still pressing for more details about what exactly Stanford's statement will mean for workers and have requested a meeting with the administration to discuss it further.
"While Stanford's recent 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," said Ethan Chua, a student organizer with Stanford Students for Workers' Rights. "In addition, the announcement still does not address Students for Workers' Rights' demand for the extension of two weeks' paid sick leave to all Stanford workers; neither 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; the university should not have taken a month to extend support to them."
Students said on Wednesday that the unemployed workers they have been in touch with had not received any communication about the announcement, either from their employer or Stanford.
Estela Diaz has worked as a prep cook at Arbuckle Cafe at the Graduate School of Business for 20 years as a contractor through Bon Appetit Management Company. She was among the hourly and salaried employees the Palo Alto company put on temporary unpaid leave starting in mid-March as campus dining services were significantly scaled back. Bon Appetit said it would continue their health insurance and other benefits.
Diaz, who lives paycheck to paycheck in Mountain View, relied on her adult children to translate messages her general manager sent in English about her job security, she said in an interview. She said the cafe employees were originally told they could use vacation and sick days while they were out of work. But they had accumulated so many, rarely taking a day off, that her manager said the company couldn't afford to provide that pay in case it would affect the reopening of the cafe.
Unable to pay her April rent, Diaz leaned on her daughter for a loan. She quickly filed for unemployment.
Diaz said she felt "disappointed" by the institution she had worked at for two decades.
"Es un injusticia," she said in Spanish. "It's an injustice."
"I am very sad," she added. "It makes me want to cry."
On Wednesday, Diaz said she had not heard about Stanford's announcement -- she learned about it from a student organizer.
Stanford Students for Workers' Rights launched its first petition in early March, concerned that service workers would be most vulnerable to the effects of a campus closure. They escalated their effort as they found out more workers were losing their jobs, using Twitter to bring famous alumni's attention to their cause and pointing to other major U.S. universities that were paying all workers, including contracted employees, while their campuses were closed. The students raised more than $200,000 in emergency funds for workers through GoFundMe campaigns.
A group of about 100 faculty members signed a letter urging the university to support subcontracted workers and to "recognize, in meaningful and material ways, the people whose labor is fundamental to sustaining the university." They pledged to donate each month a portion of their salaries to laid-off workers.
On Monday, the Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers also called on Stanford to continue pay and benefits into the summer for at least 100 full-time union-represented food service and janitorial workers who lost their jobs in March.
"One thing that's left me deeply sad and exhausted is: What kind of innovation counts at Stanford?" Chua said in an interview last week. "Technological innovation is big here but there's something innovative about extending pay to service workers that does not fly.
"The real innovation I'm wanting from Stanford is to be able to really value workers for what they're worth," he said.
Stanford will now extend pay continuation for all regular employees, including those who are represented by a union, through June 15, Drell and Zacharias said Tuesday.
The university will reach out to businesses who rent space on campus, such as the Bike Shop and the Bookstore, to see if they need help accessing federal loans and "what Stanford can do to help them until their on-campus operations can resume," they said.
Stanford is also creating a grant program to support Stanford employees who are facing financial hardships due to the pandemic, including people who "work in certain contingent roles that are not eligible for pay continuation," Drell and Zacharias wrote. People will be able to donate to the grant program.
Drell announced earlier this month several steps the university is taking to address "significant" revenue loss due to the coronavirus, including freezing faculty and staff salaries, pausing hiring, suspending capital projects and pulling back on discretionary spending. Drell and President Marc Tessier-Lavigne are also taking 20% pay cuts and have asked senior university leaders to voluntarily take 5-10% salary reductions.
"We expect additional, difficult steps will be needed in the coming months," Drell and Zacharias wrote this week. "We intend to make those decisions thoughtfully, in a way that supports our community to the greatest extent possible and that positions Stanford for an effective recovery from this downturn."
At a virtual faculty senate meeting on April 16, Drell said Stanford has seen a $200 million reversal in the university's consolidated budget for this fiscal year -- after projecting that Stanford would end the year with a $126 million surplus.
"The $200 million swing negative is distributed across many different fund types and we believe that at least $100 million of that will hit general funds, our most precious, unrestricted source of funds that supports many, many things at Stanford, including staff, faculty and student financial aid," she said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.