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After confusion with Duke’s commitment to pay contract workers, Duke defines qualifications for pay

After Duke promised to keep qualifying contract workers on a full pay schedule, some workers felt the language used in the promise was unclear, leading them to worry that the policy would exclude a majority of dining workers.

However, Duke’s spokesperson offered more specifics to The Chronicle about the plan, explaining that the qualifications for furlough pay for dining contract workers were more expansive.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email that Duke is committing to pay furlough wages to anyone who works at Duke for at least 30 hours a week as full-time, “regardless of the vendor.” 

He also emphasized that “currently assigned” refers to workers’ pre-spring break assignments. 

“The commitment to pay contract workers extends to EVERYONE who had a full-time assignment in Duke University facilities BEFORE spring break, which means everyone who was working before March 6 and not just the spring break crew,” Schoenfeld wrote.

Executive Vice President Tallman Trask wrote in a March 18 email to the Duke community that some contracted employees would continue to receive their current pay until May 31. After the email was sent, members of a self-organized group of contact dining employees called Duke Contract Workers United worried that the policy excluded most of Duke’s food service contracted workers. In addition, they said contracted employees have received no communication regarding the statuses of their jobs. 

Duke Contract Workers United released a statement March 16 that listed three demands: clear and publicly available information about Duke’s intentions with regards to contract workers, extended furlough pay for the duration of limited operations and a guarantee of reinstatement to previous positions when Duke fully re-opens.  

Trask’s statement detailed several conditions for contract workers to qualify for furlough pay. According to the email, qualifying food service contract workers must be currently assigned to work full-time in Duke facilities, their employers must be unable to provide continuation of their payment and they must not be covered by government programs.

On Thursday morning, directly following Trask’s statement, Duke Contract Workers United sent out a second press release. It called Trask’s letter “intentionally misleading and nothing more than an underhanded attempt to make this issue disappear.”

Schoenfeld explained that the University wanted to make sure qualifying contracted workers were paid.

“The details of that will be worked out with each of the individual contractors, but Duke will ensure that every one of those employees will get paid through May 31,” he said in a March 18 interview.

The Chronicle spoke to three members of Duke Contract Workers United, all of whom were granted anonymity in order to avoid any increased risk of losing their jobs. Two are dining service contract workers in the Brodhead Center, and one is a contract worker at The Loop.

One contracted worker at the Brodhead Center explained that many food service contract workers hold two part-time food service jobs in the Brodhead Center or elsewhere on campus. Therefore, many workers in Duke Contract Workers United were concerned that even if they worked full-time hours at Duke, they would be considered part-time employees with multiple jobs and would not be eligible for furlough. 

However, Schoenfeld explained that any contract dining worker who works at least 30 hours per week in total, regardless of the number of locations, would be defined as full-time.

The contract workers also noted that there was considerable confusion surrounding Trask’s use of the words “currently assigned.” Duke Contract Workers United’s original interpretation was that only employees who were assigned full-time hours during the past several weeks would qualify to continue receiving paychecks. Because restaurant hours were severely limited during the two weeks of spring break, very few employees were scheduled full time hours. 

This wording applies to the pre-spring break work schedule, Schoenfeld noted. 

As of yesterday afternoon, Duke’s administration had not responded directly to Duke Contract Workers United, and the three workers said they had not received any official communication regarding their employment status.

“The biggest insult to injury is that officially, we know nothing. We’re hearing this all through word of mouth,” The Loop worker said. Duke Contract Workers United was forwarded Trask’s statement by several students. 

This employee spoke to their manager the next day, who also had not received additional information from Duke.

Schoenfeld explained that the Duke administration can’t always work as fast as people want due to the volume of decisions that have to be made and the hurdles Duke encounters.

“The University can't just can't just unilaterally make a decision like this,” Schoenfeld said after Trask’s email was sent. “There are a lot of pieces. There are legal questions, regulatory questions, financial questions. They all just need to be addressed. From the beginning there has been a strong interest and a desire to make this commitment. We were able to work through all of the issues to determine that we were able to make the commitment to do and do so today.”

Trask’s email also does not mention how tipped workers’ furlough pay will be calculated. The Loop worker explained that they make $5 an hour without tips, so their potential payout could be significantly less than what they’d receive through unemployment insurance. 

However, this employee said, unemployment insurance can take a long time to be processed, and many food service workers have already lost two weeks of payment due to the extended spring break. 

The other Brodhead Center contracted worker said that Duke Contract Workers United has received significant support from undergraduate and faculty groups. They said that the faculty union wrote a letter to send to administrators after Trask’s Wednesday message was released, “calling the [Executive] Vice President out on his wording in the letter.” 

“They understand, along with much of the student body, that we’re the people who make the Duke food industry run on a day-to-day basis,” the worker said.  

Anna Zolotor profile
Anna Zolotor

Anna Zolotor is a Trinity senior and recruitment chair for The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously news editor for Volume 117.


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