Harvard President Bacow Defends Eliminating Pay for Most Idled Contract Workers


Despite calls for change, University President Lawrence S. Bacow doubled down on the University’s decision to stop compensating the majority of idled contract workers after Jan. 15 in an interview with The Crimson on Thursday.

Since March, the University has sustained regular salaries for all direct staff and most contract workers whose work was eliminated by the pandemic. Come mid-January, though, the University plans to reduce pay for direct staff and eliminate pay for most contract workers.

Bacow said that the University strives to be “generous and supportive” of all its employees.

“We have literally thousands of people that we’ve been paying full time who have had no work since March. And we’ve tried to do as much as we can,” he said. “But we also have responsibilities to students and faculty and staff, and we have to prioritize the academic enterprise as well.”


In a Nov. 12 announcement, Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp cited financial challenges as the reason for the change. On top of decreased revenues, both Lapp and Bacow noted that the University anticipates some increased expenses, like financial aid.

“We know that there are going to be students — we’ve already received requests — with much greater demand for financial aid because their parents have no work at this point,” Bacow said. “Candidly, we have to prioritize that over contract workers who are not our employees.”

Bacow also said that the indefinite nature of the pandemic complicates the University’s financial decision-making.

“There are limits to how much we can do and we don’t know how long this is going to last,” he said. “What we can’t afford is to compromise the academic mission of the institution, given that we have extraordinary demands on the University to support students, and others as well.”

Roxana Rivera — the vice president of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ — wrote in an emailed statement that the union is “shocked and disappointed” by the University’s choice to modify its emergency excused absence policy.

32BJ SEIU represents approximately 1,000 custodians and security officers at Harvard. Roughly 400 custodians are directly employed, while another 300 are contracted — as are all security officers, who work directly for Securitas.

“While Harvard’s financials are no doubt affected by the pandemic, they remain the University with the largest endowment of any higher education institution in the world,” Rivera wrote. “They can afford to continue to take care of these contracted workers.”

“When the dust has settled and this pandemic is over, Harvard will recover, but if these custodians and security officers lose their jobs, they may never catch up,” she added.

In November, 32BJ held rallies calling on the University to guarantee it will not lay off contracted workers in the spring. More than 1,100 affiliates also signed a petition demanding the University extend the same protections to contracted workers and directly employed staff.

In the interview, Bacow noted that Harvard contracts with a variety of workers whose services are not needed year-round.

“The University contracts with all sorts of folks,” he said. “We contract with different employers to provide services to us, usually because we often have seasonal needs for workers, and so we don’t employ them year round.”

“I would also point out that we are encouraging these people to look to their own employers for support, not just to Harvard,” he added.

Rivera wrote that the administration is acting “disingenuous in emphasizing the contracted nature of these jobs.”

“These are not gig workers who do the occasional job for Harvard,” she wrote. “These are dedicated and vital members of the Harvard community who have been at the frontlines of keeping campus clean, safe, and healthy throughout this crisis alongside their directly-employed colleagues.”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.