Students and faculty spent the worst of snowstorm Juno comfortably in their dorms or homes, but dining hall workers found themselves driving in hazardous conditions to report to work, or not being able to report to work at all.
“I was unable to make the drive to work due to the ongoing storm and unsafe road conditions on January 27th. I live about 50 miles from The College and work at 5:30 a.m.,” Maureen Sullivan said. Sullivan is a dining services employee who works in Bates Hall and is also the union secretary.
Sullivan was one of 40 employees in dining services deemed as “essential” who could not make it to work on Tuesday, Jan. 27 and were denied that day’s pay from the College. In response to the College’s decision to not pay dining services staff, the Independent Maintenance and Service Employees Union of America (IMSEUA) posted a petition on Facebook urging Wellesley administration to pay employees straight-time, or regular pay for Tuesday, Jan. 27. Over 540 signatures have been collected on Facebook from current students, alumnae and faculty members.
“This isn’t just, oh someone didn’t get the right amount of overtime pay or something, this affects people who were supposed to drive to work in a state of emergency, in a blizzard, so it’s just really emotional and upsetting,” union representative Tricia Diggins said.
The College determines the classification of essential workers at the beginning of each academic year, according to the current union agreement between Wellesley College and IMSEUA. Currently, essential workers on campus include dining services and grounds crew. This category of workers also required employees like Richard Hanna, who works at the Leaky Beaker, to report to work despite no students or faculty reporting for classes that day.
“It was sort of straightforward because everyone in dining services was classed as essential, including Richard who works in the Leaky Beaker, and we were like, that makes no sense because [The Leaky Beaker’s] closed, so they should maybe think about who is absolutely necessary,” Diggins said.
Although dining service employees are employed under AVI Fresh, which is not directly affiliated with the College, the decision to deny pay to employees was deferred to Wellesley administration.
“Wellesley and the union have agreed upon, in the current contract, specific terms and conditions that become applicable when the College is closed, including the terms under which employees who are required to report to work will be paid,” Vice President for Finance and Administration Ben Hammond said. “Wellesley has met its obligations under this agreement, which stipulates that those who report to work when the College is closed receive more than double their regular pay, and those who do not report to work can be paid by
using their available vacation or personal days.”
Tensions between the union and the College were last heated in 2012 during union agreement negotiations. The debate at the time was also centered around dining services employees, who are the lowest paid employees at Wellesley and represent the highest percentage of women and minorities. At the time, Wellesley sought to decrease the starting wage for new dining services staff, although this did not end up in the final contract.
“This is not the first time I’ve heard about Wellesley administration neglecting the needs of the staff workers. Staff members are submitted to laborious work everyday and go without sitting. Most of them cannot afford to miss a day’s pay and I think it is absolutely unfair for Wellesley to withhold their pay,” Julie Chen ’15 said.
The union agreement states that essential employees are required to report to work in the case of emergency unless doing so poses unreasonable risk. The contract also states, however, that personal time must be used if an essential employee cannot report to work.
Similar emergency policies hold in other Boston-area colleges and universities. MIT’s Personnel Policy Manual states, “While the Institute strives to be fair and reasonable in payment for closings, there is no legal obligation to reimburse employees when work is not available because of emergency conditions. The Institute reserves the right, therefore, to determine whether to close, whether employees will be paid, and, if so, on what basis.” Furthermore, the policy states, “Only employees regularly scheduled to work on a day of closing are eligible for closing pay. Employees instructed to report for work who do not report are not eligible for payment.”
Those who were denied pay at Wellesley would only get paid if they used personal time.
“I was denied pay. I was told I could use a vacation day or a personal day if I wanted to get paid, otherwise it would be unpaid,” Sullivan said.
Another point of contention stems from language in section 7.1(f) — Emergency Closings — of the current union agreement in effect since 2012, which differs from the previous union agreement in effect from 2008-2012. The 2012 union agreement specifies College-declared emergencies instead of the ambiguous emergency language used in the 2008 agreement.
The 2008 union agreement states that essential employees who come in during an emergency closing are paid two and a half times their regular rate of pay for hours actually worked. The 2012 union agreement specifies that the two and a half rate of overtime pay will be in effect for specific College-declared emergency closings.
Later in that same section of the agreement, the language of the College deciding to close is added in the 2012 agreement.
The 2008 agreement states, “Employees who are expected to report to work but cannot do so because of a declared state of emergency will receive their regular straight-time pay,” while the 2012 agreement states, “In the event that the College decides to close due to a declared state of emergency, employees who are expected to report to work but cannot do so because of the declared state of emergency will receive their regular straight-time pay.”
Diggins believes these subtle changes in language may have played a role in The College’s decision to deny pay to dining hall workers for the day.
“It hasn’t been a problem in the past because we had some language in the last contract, and we thought the language we had this time was pretty much the same thing,” Diggins said. “In our understanding, in the contract, two things had to kick in in order for essential workers to get paid straight-time like everybody else: there had to be a declared state of emergency and the College had to be closed. And both those conditions were met. It’s just being so picky, and it affects peoples’ lives.”
In addition, Diggins said that according to the contract, employees that are expected to report to work but cannot due to a state of emergency but couldn’t would receive straight-time pay. But because of the ban, workers were not allowed on the roads.
The College’s declaration of an emergency closing is separate from the State of Massachusetts’ emergency declaration. IMSEUA’s petition on Facebook cites Governor Baker’s travel ban which was invoked at midnight on Tuesday, Jan. 27. According to a press release on the governor’s website, the travel ban restricts travel to essential emergency response officials, medical, healthcare and human service workers, essential public transit and support workers, those traveling for essential medical procedures and vehicles and personnel delivering essential supplies to healthcare facilities.
The ban does not exempt workers deemed “essential” by The College. To accommodate workers who could not travel home due to hazardous weather conditions, Wellesley offered rooms at The Wellesley College Club for dining services employees to share. However, the space was not sufficient and students reported staff members sleeping on the floor of the Lulu Chow Wang campus center and couches in the Science Center. There were also dining services employees who brought their children to work, as all Boston area schools were closed for the day.
“If they deem the workers essential employees, they better treat them with higher respect and better conditions. Of course they are essential; without them, Wellesley will not run and students will not be happy,” Chen said.
Claire Milldrum ’15 agreed that dining hall workers were essential to the campus during emergencies.
“I think dining hall workers are essential as students do not have easy access to a grocery store to stock up on food. This would change if the College had a bus or other system existed in my opinion. They are more essential on emergency days than I think many of the higher up administrators are as they provide a direct service,” Milldrum said.
In the case that dining halls would not open during emergency snow days, students shared their plans to feed themselves by alternative means.
“If I know ahead of time it [the College] is not open, I will go to Roche Bros. to buy something. If I have grocery already, I will just cook noodles. Or visit my friend who lives in Scoop to eat with them,” Chen said.
Milldrum believes monetary problems could be to blame for the decision to deny pay.
“If the College has monetary problems, then there should be more proactive planning than just not paying its lower paid staff or having a forced unlimited meal plan,” Milldrum said.
Diggins thinks the petition will lead to an expedited response from Wellesley administration members compared to filing a grievance.
“This isn’t a huge amount of money or anything, but it’s the principle, so that’s what the grievance will call for is to pay straight time to those people on only one day — on the second day, the college closing day, the conditions weren’t met, so if you were essential and didn’t come in, you had to use your own time,” Diggins said.
A grievance can take a couple months to come to a decision, and if the College stands by the original decision, the process of arbitration could take up to a year.
Sullivan hopes the College will abide by the union agreement and pay dining services staff just as non-essential staff were paid.
“I would like the College, by seeing the support from students, faculty and staff, to acknowledge their error and live up to the terms of our Collective Bargaining Agreement and pay us for the day, like other non-essential staff who were paid, not out of earned vacation or personal time,” Sullivan said.
Ultimately, Diggins hopes The College will pay the 40 workers denied pay straight-time pay for Tuesday, Jan. 27. She will meet with the College in the coming week to present the petition and start the grievance filing process.
Photo by Lydia Han ’18, Photography Editor