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Princeton says it avoided COVID-19 furloughs and layoffs. For some contract workers, that isn’t the case.

<h5>Prospect House (pictured here), Palmer House, the EQuad Café, Genomics Café, and Café 701 all typically employ workers contracted through Restaurant Associates.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Prospect House (pictured here), Palmer House, the EQuad Café, Genomics Café, and Café 701 all typically employ workers contracted through Restaurant Associates.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Editor’s Note: Princeton Mutual Aid helped to arrange interviews for this piece, some of which were conducted in Spanish, and provided volunteer translators. A Spanish-language version of this piece is available here, courtesy of Peter Taylor ’22 and Princeton Mutual Aid members Amanda Sol Peralta and Isa Lapuerta. Features writer Sofia Alvarado ’23 reviewed the translation.

The Daily Princetonian granted interviewed workers anonymity for fear of retaliation. The piece refers to those interviewees with capital letters.

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This article has been updated to clarify that DACA recipients are eligible for unemployment and to remove mention of DAPA. This piece has also been modified to more thoroughly protect sources anonymity and security.

On March 12, 2020, A., a part-time Campus Dining employee, learned they could not come into work.

“I remember getting a call from my supervisor saying that they closed down due to the pandemic,” A. said, “and that they couldn’t do anything to help us.”

Unlike other Campus Dining workers, A. was not directly employed by the University. Their paychecks came from Restaurant Associates, the contracted catering company that runs services in Prospect House, Palmer House, EQuad Café, Genomics Café, and Café 701.

Restaurant Associates has worked with the University for over 20 years. In 1998, the company was acquired by Compass Group P.L.C., the largest contract food service company in the world.

Desperate to know their work status, A. repeatedly called and emailed their supervisors. After learning they were on furlough, they still did not know when or if they would be called back. 

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B., another Restaurant Associates employee who worked at the University, said that several co-workers attempted to follow up with supervisors to learn when they might be able to return to work. Their co-worker, C., tried calling, texting, and emailing managers. No one replied. In the end, C. went to their workplace in person to ask around.

“[C.] had to find out if they had to look for another job,” B. said. “We have bills to pay in this country, and no one wants a boss who only lets them know important changes when he feels like it.” 

According to another furloughed worker, D., after an initial email informing them of the furlough, “the manager there never called us or sent an email. We spent a long time without hearing from them: about 5–6 months.”  

At first, workers were told that they would return to work in two weeks, then a month, then in the fall.

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On Aug. 7, around one month before contract workers expected to resume work on campus, the University announced that most undergraduates would remain remote for the fall. As a result, A., B., C., and D. have now spent nine months on indefinite furlough.

“I was hoping that we could get supported by Princeton, since we had worked there for years,” A. said. “But we didn’t.”

Interviewed contract workers told The Daily Princetonian they are among at least 50 Restaurant Associates employees working for the University who were placed on indefinite furlough during the week of March 12. They said they know of at least five who were laid off. Several of those furloughed or laid off had been working at the University for many years — and in some cases, decades.

When asked about the March furloughs, Restaurant Associates Senior Vice President of Creative Services Sam Souccar deferred comment to the University, citing contractual obligations.

“Due to the nature of our contract with the University, we are not able to discuss any details relating to our associates or operations,” he wrote.

According to University Spokesperson Ben Chang, “Restaurant Associates has informed us that it is complying with all employment laws and internal policies relating to its dealings with its personnel, and that it has not received any requests for assistance from its staff during the furlough.” 

Chang declined to disclose the number of contract workers furloughed or laid off since March. Since the spring, administrators have repeatedly assured the Princeton community that all staff remain employed.

“All our staff remain on full salary,” Provost Deborah Prentice said during a March Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) meeting. “We are committed to our human capital and we want to keep everyone on full salary as long as we can.”

Several months later, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 expressed the same commitment. “We have thus far avoided the kinds of furloughs and layoffs that have taken place at other universities,” he wrote in a May 4 email to the Princeton community.

He repeated the claim at an Aug. 20 University Town Hall for staff.

While the University has kept its 7,300 directly employed workers on payroll, contract workers have not experienced the same level of protection — a fact that Executive Vice President Treby Williams ’84 confirmed at a Sept. 21 CPUC meeting.

At the meeting, Williams reported that in addition to workers from Restaurant Associates, the University employs contract workers from First Transit for bus and shuttle services and American Campus Communities to staff Lakeside Graduate Housing. According to Chang, “fewer than 100 employees of Restaurant Associates and First Transit are normally assigned to work at the University.”

Chang added that the University uses contract workers for jobs that “require an expertise that the University does not have.” In the case of operations run by Restaurant Associates, such expertise includes professional hospitality and fine dining catering services.

Princeton is not alone in its use of contract labor for catering operations, nor is it the only university that does not offer contract workers the same protections afforded to directly-employed staff. Among others, contract workers at Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford University have experienced mass furloughs and layoffs. Harvard University will also stop compensating many contract workers next month, in addition to recently announcing layoffs of some directly-hired dining services employees.

At the Sept. 21 CPUC meeting, several graduate students submitted a question that claimed, “many contract workers at the University have been laid off and not given any benefits since March.”

In response, Williams stated that contract workers had been furloughed, not laid off — a claim which several contract workers dispute. Additionally, she said that “they could use up personal days,” and that “they continue to receive benefits and are eligible for unemployment.”

Contract workers who spoke with the ‘Prince’ contested Williams’s characterization. Some former full-time employees have kept their health insurance, but others reported lacking coverage. Some furloughed workers have reported delays or difficulty accessing unemployment benefits or CARES Act funding. These difficulties are particularly prevalent for those who are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which defers the deportation of undocumented people who arrived in the United States as children.

Though Williams said furloughed workers could use their “personal days,” many have not been able to use their paid time off — which, for several, had accrued to dozens of hours worth of wages.

According to B., many workers “don’t want to fight for the money, because they are scared.” They added that undocumented workers have been particularly afraid of retaliation from their employers.

“That’s why the company keeps doing these things to the employees,” they continued. “Because nobody wants to do anything.”

D. highlighted fairly treating contract workers as a matter of racial equity, given that many of the affected workers, including those interviewed for this piece, are Latinos or people of color.

“We know that the University has lots of funds,” they said. “But for our community of Latinos, there is always some discrimination. This is what it feels like: that there is discrimination against us. They are not treating us as though we are important.”

Furloughed workers share stories of unemployment during COVID-19

While waiting for the University to reopen, A. recalled applying for unemployment benefits. They said they did not receive any. They also applied for jobs, but the pandemic made opportunities scarce. Employer after employer, they said, told them, “we don’t have a lot of hours right now.”

A. cares for their parents, with whom they live. Because their father also lost his job and their mother has been out of work due to health issues, their household lost all sources of income after March. Unable to pay rent, A. borrowed money from family members.

In late May, their entire household was infected with the coronavirus. They had no health insurance.

“And that was in the midst of seeking another job and helping the community out,” A. said. “It was very tough because we had to definitely stay home. I didn’t have Wi-Fi connection, and the library closed.”

Although A. and their father have recovered from COVID-19, their mother has not yet made a full recovery.

“So it was terrible,” they said. “Very terrible situation.”

C. has not been able to find a stable job, and they have been “worried, and upset that Compass hasn’t been a help.” 

B., too, has not been able to recover their source of income. At first, they relied on unemployment benefits and their spouse’s income. But even then, “it wasn’t the same” — unemployment amounted to $300 a week, compared to their weekly $500 paycheck from Restaurant Associates, according to B. 

D., who also qualified for unemployment, said they received $200 a week in benefits, which did not cover their rent.

Then, in August, B.’s work permit expired. Since then, they have not received a cent. 

Unlike A., B. and C. were full-time Restaurant Associates employees. Although C. was not able to keep their health insurance, B. did — but “the benefits were no good.” When B. went to a doctor’s appointment, they “had to pay more out-of-pocket than what the insurance paid for.” 

B., too, contracted COVID-19 over the summer, although they were the only one in their household to experience symptoms. After a month of attempted quarantine at home, they said, “thank god, it passed.”

Although A. found part-time employment in September — an accomplishment which “took a lot of effort and time” — the new source of income is not enough to support their family of three.

One organization which helped their family make it through the past seven months has been Princeton Mutual Aid (PMA), an organization founded by Princeton community members in the wake of the pandemic.

“If it wasn’t for Mutual Aid, I don’t know what [I] would have done,” they said. “Because they would be the ones to provide us with food and help cover for the bills. Help for the rent. So, we are very grateful for that. But it was very tough, because we all got infected at the same time.”

B. has also received support from PMA, in the form of “food and money every week.”

They are also grateful for Corner House, a Princeton non-profit providing COVID-19 relief, which has helped their family negotiate lower rent and cover utilities.

While they have received help from local organizations, the interviewed workers felt that they had not received adequate support from the University or their employers. 

All those interviewed expressed that their former employers have been unresponsive throughout the furlough — never calling to ask how employees are doing or offering support.

“They really didn’t feel that it was important to keep us informed about our work or tell us that we would be without jobs for a while,” D. said.

“I don’t think it should be like this, because we are human,” B. said. “For them, all that matters is that I do work. And the next day, if I’m not working anymore, they won’t even look at me.”

“A lot can be done”: Conversations and advocacy surrounding University contract workers

As a PMA member, Shuk Ying Chan GS had been working with community members for two months when she learned, through casual conversation, that one of her neighbors used to work at the University.

“Then they told me that they had been furloughed, and had received no support since March,” Chan said.

Infuriated, Chan and other PMA members pressed University administrators for more information at town halls and over email. Believing that contract workers “deserve nothing less” than what the University’s 7,300 directly employed staff receive, she said, “contract workers are also the people who make this community work.”

“They’ve also devoted many, many years — in some cases, decades — of their lives to serving this community,” she continued. “And so, in a time of unprecedented crisis, I think the University should totally support them.”

For the University to choose not to do so, said Chan, was “extremely unethical,” “abdicating their responsibility,” and “very insulting and hurtful” for contract workers, especially since it’s “something that [the University] can very easily afford to do.”

Chan questioned why the University would hire a contractor in the first place and raised concerns about what she described as a “long track record of labor violations” by Compass Group, Restaurant Associates’ parent company. 

“Ultimately, you’re the one that decides whether to use a contractor, and then you’re the one that has the power to make sure that the contractor respects workers’ rights,” she said. “And you’re the ones being served by these same workers. Contracting does not get you off the moral hook.”

Chan and PMA are not alone in advocating to support contract workers. The Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition (PAAC), which has published demands in the ‘Prince,’ has also advocated for the University to provide benefits for furloughed contract workers, as well as to rehire them as full-time union-protected staff.

“PAAC denounces the employment practices of Compass Group and Princeton University, which strip workers of their right to legal protections and employment benefits through their reliance on non-union contract labor,” the PAAC wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ 

“These practices are exploitative and weaken campus solidarity by creating unequal working conditions for contracted and full-time workers. PAAC demands the immediate reinstatement of Restaurant Associates workers as full-time, regular employees of the University and as members of Local 175 of the SEIU.”

Local 175 is the Princeton branch of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents about 2 million workers. The union’s contract with the University kept all its members employed during the pandemic. 

Last spring, similar student advocacy efforts at Harvard led to financial benefits and protections for Restaurant Associates contract workers there. A petition titled “Harvard, Pay All Your Workers” drafted by the Labor & Employment Action Project (LEAP), a student group at Harvard Law School, called upon Harvard to extend its 30 days of paid leave for the rest of the spring semester, as well as to cover contract workers employed through Restaurant Associates. The petition garnered over 7,000 signatures.

On March 27, hours after LEAP organized a call-in and flooded administrative phone lines demanding equity for contract workers, Harvard agreed to provide financial support for all its workers throughout the spring, contractors and direct employees alike. According to a report from the Boston Eater, Harvard “[directed] cash assistance” to Restaurant Associates, which in turn compensated furloughed workers directly. Georgetown created a similar arrangement with its dining vendor Aramark, which compensated furloughed contract workers until the end of the spring semester. 

Given this work in the spring, Harvard’s impending layoffs of at least 17 dining services workers and decision to stop compensating many contracted workers effective next month came as a surprise.

“Throughout the pandemic, Harvard has been a good actor as an institution in protecting jobs and making sure that people didn’t lose their income during a global pandemic,” Michael Kramer, executive vice president of a union representing many Harvard dining employees told The Crimson. “This is a really shocking and unfortunate change of course that is going to destroy jobs and is unnecessary and cruel in this moment

“Harvard was able to [pay its contract workers in the spring,] and Princeton also has a several billion dollar endowment,” added LEAP member and Harvard Law student Mackenzie Bouverat. “There’s no reason that either university should shirk its responsibilities to the community members who make it possible for them to run.”

Advocates have also pointed out that, even in the era of COVID-19, the University’s endowment earned a return of around $500 million last fiscal year.

Chang noted that University priorities include “continued employment and benefits for our staff — even if conditions do not allow them to fulfill their normal duties — and providing additional paid time for people who become ill or have care-taking responsibilities.”

“These commitments are above and beyond what many institutions and organizations have been able to do during this challenging time, and we are grateful to be able to take these steps,” he said.

When asked whether the University would consider rehiring or providing financial benefits to furloughed or laid off contract workers, University spokespeople said that such support fell beyond the University’s jurisdiction. 

“External service providers are independent organizations,” Chang said, “and they are making challenging decisions regarding their businesses and personnel in the midst of a pandemic that has affected every portion of our economy. The University cannot dictate to them how to run their business.”

Nonetheless, contract workers and advocates continue to call upon the University for support.

“Both [Harvard and Princeton] act like they’ve painted themselves into a corner,” Bouverat said, “that somehow their contracts with contractors prevent them satisfying their obligations to community members. They pretend that nothing can be done. But a lot can be done.”

When asked what they would say if they could speak directly to their former employers at the University, D. said, “I would tell them to consider the work that we’ve done for the University, which has been good work, and that we’ve been working many years, and working well.”

D. and others remarked that since they have provided years of service to the University’s students, faculty, staff and administrators — including President Eisgruber — they had hoped that at a time of need, the University would not leave them behind.

“Take that into account,” D. emphasized, “and don’t just abandon us.”

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