The independent news organization of Duke University

Dear President Price: Why do we treat housekeepers like what they clean up?

I ask because since September of last year, Duke’s residential housekeeping staff have been required to work weekends. On March 6, I attended a student-run appreciation lunch for residential housekeepers—student-run because HRL offered no such gesture. The event ran from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. Those housekeepers present had to leave at about 12:40 p.m., because per university policy they must clock back into their buildings by 1 p.m.

I put to you the questions I left with. I have kept the housekeepers at center in the hope that someone might finally hear them. If you are wondering why residential housekeeping staff seem not to speak up themselves, it is because they are afraid it could cost them their jobs.

What good is a closer-to-living $15 wage, if the work that earns it robs the earner of that time when life is lived? The Duke Students and Workers Alliance fact sheet shows that workers must now live by an inane schedule of seven days on, two off, three on, two off. They spend every other weekend working. One worker felt estranged from their family, having lost the two days of the week they could share. For some strange reason, it appears that few other area employers share this schedule. Another would have days out with their family. These days, not so much.

You said in Duke Today, on August 25, 2017, that “Our goal is always for Duke to be the best place to work in North Carolina.” But which Duke? The Duke for these residential housekeeping staff is seven days of work, upwards of 60 hours per week, and with no additional compensation. Even when there is a Sunday rest, they say they are too tired to enjoy it—alone or with anyone else. 

Perhaps one might counter, as Leslye Kornegay, director of university environmental services did, that “changes are reviewed with local union representatives for the unit, and are implemented in accordance with the collective-bargaining agreement.” And the workers are not working more hours than they did before. Yet according to workers, the University with friends at union-busting law firms was not so kind. One voiced their complaints, only to be told to fall in line or seek work elsewhere. Because jobs abound outside of Duke, “the largest private employer in Durham.” Another can’t remember any conversation: only a meeting where workers were told the same take-it-or-leave-it deal. They work the same hours, yes, but in exhausting seven-day sprints and odd, lonely rests. They have the same quantity of pay for a lower quality of life.

This harm to the body is bad enough. But your silence on this harm does harm to heart and soul. One used to go to church, but can’t if they’re working. Another used to be involved in ministry with their daughter, but has since had to stop. The daughter has also been cut off from an arts program. More have been cut off from time with their parents. And this parent, who had to tell her daughter “no,” feels cut off spiritually. Most hardly have time, they say, for a relationship with God. They have to ask for leave to attend the church where that relationship happens. One feels guilty, even dishonest to God.

A University that enshrines the academic freedom of everyone while obstructing anyone’s rights to practice their religion and be present in the lives of their children voids its claim to pronounce on anything that really matters. No wonder, that your “pledge to serve our community has never been stronger and will only grow”—that such banal assurances of our good intent for Durham—are, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “but as the cuckoo is in June. Heard, not regarded.”

But I know that not only you are reading this. I have no doubt that we students follow along and roll our eyes and lament Duke’s continued abuse of its workers. I speak now to them. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Matthew, chapter 7, verse 5. Do you wonder why we treat our workers like dronish drudges? One worker said in September—seven months ago—that “students were complaining about the bathroom on Sundays, and so they got seven day coverage.”

We are the problem. We leave our bathrooms so filthy that lives are disrupted. Time that can never be gotten back is lost. We do not hesitate to disrespect the human dignity of the human beings who keep our homes clean, and how do they react? Are they made at our entitled cruelties? No. They are concerned for their community. One worker would not miss their weekend shifts because their coworkers would have to pick up the slack. All our classes and clubs and conferences and time abroad, and we know nothing of caring for a community.

A housekeeper and a Duke student are different. The housekeeper asks, “What about them?” The Duke student asks, “What about me?”

Do you feel that I have mischaracterized you? Perhaps you confuse your participation in DukeEngage with a wholehearted interest in human welfare. Do not be proud that you gave up ten weekends one summer when your mess robs housekeepers of most every other weekend they have. Perhaps you think that your hour or two every week or so of volunteering makes up for the days you rob. No, you are not a bad person. You are only a hypocrite who callously ignores the harm that blooms from your rank unkindness.

Why is it that we only care about Durham in the abstract? We spilled so much ink over Duke’s involvement—or rather, non-involvement—in the Durham light rail. We saw the numbers in a ledger that showed the harm Duke would do to Durham, and we spent weeks parsing out the issue. And yet we cannot be bothered to be concerned with the welfare of the flesh-and-blood Durhamites whom no one could blame if they left us tomorrow.  

I close with a final question and a final request. To President Price: will you give these housekeeping staff their lives outside of Duke? You are the President of this University. It is in your power to achieve. Your promise to make Duke North Carolina’s best employer can be either a vain hypocrisy or a point of institutional pride. It cannot be both. And my request, to students: since Mommy and Daddy are not here to pick up your mess, act like the adults you pretend to be and take responsibility for your own spaces.

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


Share and discuss “Dear President Price: Why do we treat housekeepers like what they clean up?” on social media.