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Harvard University dining hall workers strike over wages and health-care costs

In this March 13 photo, people walk near Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Hundreds of dining hall workers at Harvard University have gone on strike after four months of negotiations over wages and health-care benefits with the Ivy League school failed to produce a new contract.

Workers gathered at dining halls across the campus to protest what they say are unaffordable health-care costs and unsustainable wages, according to Tiffany Ten Eyck, a spokeswoman for UNITE HERE Local 26, which represents 750 Harvard food service employees. The contract expired Sept. 17, and the union said workers would strike if a settlement were not reached by midnight Tuesday.

“In the last two weeks, dining hall workers have become fed up with negotiations,” Ten Eyck said. “They’ve gone through 19 long negotiation meetings to get the administration to hear them on something they feel is really reasonable for a multibillion dollar institution.”

Harvard dining hall workers could strike, so students are hoarding food like doomsday preppers

Food service workers at the university work only eight months of the year when all of the dining halls are open. On average, they make $21.89 an hour or roughly $33,800 a year, according to the university. The union is asking for $35,000 a year for employees who want to work the entire year, since some dining halls remain open.

University officials, though, say dining hall employees already receive generous compensation compared with other food service workers in the region. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dining service workers in the Boston area earn a median income of roughly $27,690 a year. The university has proposed paying dining staff who are available to work during the summer months up to $250 a week, an offer the union rejected.

“We have proposed creative solutions to issues presented by the union, and hoped union representatives would contribute to finding creative, workable solutions at the negotiation table,” Harvard officials said in a statement. “We are disappointed that they have been more interested in planning a strike than working on a solution that meets the needs of their members and the wider community.”

The university insists that proposed changes to the workers’ health-care plan, increasing out-of-pocket expenses for doctor visits, are “modest,” especially since the university would cover 87 percent of the premiums for workers earning less than $55,000. The union argues that only younger, healthy workers with minimal heath-care needs would benefit from that plan.

“We barely make $32,000 a year, and the school wants us to pay this high-cost insurance that we can’t afford,” said Anabela Pappas, who has worked in Harvard’s dining halls for 35 years. “We’re already laid off in the summer. We’re just asking, please don’t put this on us.”

To make ends meet during the summer months, Pappas said she works in the mailroom at Harvard for $8 less than she makes during the year. Pappas, who has had Type 1 diabetes since 16, said covering the costs of her medication and doctor visits is already a challenge. Paying more out of pocket, she said, is something she simply cannot afford.

“This is one of the richest universities in the world,” Pappas said of Harvard, a school with a $37 billion endowment. “And the insurance they are offering is costly. If we’re laid off, how are we going to pay for this insurance? A lot of us can barely pay out mortgage. We can’t survive on this money and be expected to pay more in insurance.”

Despite the walkout, a majority of Harvard dining halls remain open, staffed by managers and other exempt employees, according to university spokeswoman Tania deLuzuriaga. Hours of operations have been extended at those locations to accommodate more students.

In anticipation of the strike, students stocked up on food in the dining halls, adhering to the school newspaper’s survival guide, The Washington Post reported earlier this week. Students in the medical, dental and law schools as well as the Harvard Undergraduate Council have thrown support behind the dining hall workers. Pappas said she was encouraged to see dozens of students picketing alongside her on Wednesday.

Harvard and the union are set to resume negotiations Thursday afternoon, deLuzuriaga said late Wednesday.

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