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Workers request hazard pay, back pay, clearer communication for Duke

Duke service workers delivered a petition to Duke this month demanding hazard pay, back pay and more transparent communication from management about COVID-19 details and protocol.

The petition, which has been signed by more than 100 workers, asserted that Duke workers deserve “better compensation and better safety” in their workplaces for putting their health on the line to keep Duke running during the coronavirus pandemic. The Duke Students and Workers Alliance created the petition Feb. 5 after running a survey to which 70 workers responded, according to senior Anna Kasradze, a member of DSWA.

Workers submitted the petition to the Local 77 union, a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at Duke University in late February and delivered it to Vice President of Administration Kyle Cavanaugh April 8, requesting to schedule a meeting within two weeks of that date. As of April 15, Cavanaugh had not responded to the petition.

Cavanaugh directed The Chronicle to Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, for this story. Schoenfeld wrote in an email that Duke can only work with Local 77 on pay, benefits and working conditions for positions represented by the union. Duke does not work with “individual employees or self-designated groups,” he wrote.

He wrote that the University is therefore not able to respond to or comment on individuals’ demands for pay and benefits.

Charles Gooch, a longtime Marketplace worker and chief steward for the Local 77 union—which represents housekeeping and Marketplace employees; not all Duke workers are unionized—affirmed that unless the union leadership backs the petition and brings it to the table, Duke will not respond to the petition. The union’s initial unresponsiveness, he said, is the reason the petition came from a self-organized group.

“For everybody I talked to who's a member of Local 77, the union will not respond back to them,” Gooch said. “Personally, I haven't gotten no response either. So, we don’t know where [the union] stand[s] at this point on hazard pay. That's why the petition is out there.”

Local 77 held a Saturday membership meeting in which workers brought up their desire for hazard pay, according to Kasradze. The union leadership ultimately agreed to bring the issue forward in the next round of negotiations with the University, she shared in a message. 

Local 77 President William McKnight and Local 77 Vice President Wilford Hamm did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hazard pay and back pay

Throughout the pandemic, the word “unprecedented,” has been used unreservedly. But Alan Williams, a utility worker on East Campus, said that “no one looks at what’s unprecedented for the regular workers.”

Williams said that hazard pay, which refers to a pay increase for doing dangerous or physically distressing work, is necessary for workers because there needs to be some financial compensation for the “mental anguish” of being a front-line employee during a pandemic. 

“This is people’s livelihoods,” Williams said.

The petition requests hazard pay equal to 150% of an employee’s regular pay rate for all service workers until June 1. It also requests back pay equal to 50% of pay received over the period from March 10, 2020, to the day hazard pay will theoretically be introduced.

“You're asking us to come to work, put ourselves at risk of giving disease that you may carry home to your family, without any further monetary compensation,” Williams said. “You have to realize the pressure you're under—whether you come to work and risk getting sick and risk infecting your family members. That's something that wears on your mind.”

Williams has two grandkids, a wife and a stepdaughter at home. “I need to check myself at all times. I say a prayer, I keep gloves, I wash my hands, I stay out of crowds, try to stay six feet from people. I do my best and I pray a lot,” he said.

Gooch pointed out that most Duke workers working from home are still being paid in full. “But we are essential workers and we come to campus at a higher risk… So, I feel like hazard pay should be guaranteed for coming on the campus,” he said.

Among survey respondents, 77%—including 92% of housekeepers and dining workers—reported wanting hazard pay. Just over 7% reported wanting back pay.

More transparent COVID-19 communication

The petition requests that Duke workers be informed of COVID-19 protocols and details “in a consistent and transparent way.” This includes asking supervisors to inform workers when someone in a department tests positive for COVID-19, educate workers on how to access free testing through Duke and inform workers on the implications of testing positive or having symptoms for COVID-19.

All the workers interviewed expressed that supervisors and directors do not inform workers if another worker in the department tests positive for COVID-19. Around 56% of survey respondents cited issues with the management of sick workers.

Schoenfeld wrote that Duke safeguards the privacy of medical information “as required by law and following all public health guidelines to ensure the safety of workers and students.”

Williams shared that last semester, he and other members of his department ate lunch in the same break room with an employee who later tested positive for COVID-19. His supervisor, Samuel Steele, did not inform any of the workers in the department of the positive test.

“Had not the person who tested positive called and informed some of my other coworkers that they tested positive, I would’ve never known,” he said.

A former hospital worker, Williams said that he understands the privacy concerns around naming individuals who test positive. “You don’t have to tell me nobody’s name, but tell me somebody tested positive so then everyone can at least go get tested. That’s the least you can do and only fair to us as employees,” he said.

A worker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution added that there were people in their department who had COVID-19, but nobody told their coworkers that the workers were infected.

“They were just out. The only way I knew was when I saw [a co-worker] and said, ‘Hey, it’s good to see you. I’ve been out for two weeks because I had a COVID scare.’ They said, ‘Well, I had COVID,’” the worker said. “Nobody told us that and nobody disinfected the break room or anything. I don’t even go into the break room anymore.”

Williams added that after finding out his co-worker tested positive, he and other workers in the department chose to get tested at Gilbert-Addoms dorm to make sure they weren’t infected—but were chastised for doing so. According to Williams, Steele told them that workers could not be tested at Duke’s testing locations on East and West Campus. 

Williams was told that the only way workers could get tested was to call and make an appointment with Employee Health. 

Williams said that he found out the truth not through Steele, but through a Marketplace meeting with union leadership. 

“That's when I found out that we can test anywhere at any time, and it's been negotiated with the upper management since COVID-19 came out and they decided to let the students come back,” he said.

Williams said that he was never informed about this beforehand. Housing has had “little to no contact” with their union representatives during the pandemic, so “the only information we get is coming from our immediate supervisor,” Williams said.

More than half of workers who responded to the DSWA survey—about 56%—reported that they’ve never been tested at Duke, and around 31% reported they are tested less than one time per month.

Schoenfeld wrote that all employees in Local 77 and other service workers have had access to testing “as soon as it was feasible to do so on a large scale” as well as treatment and support from Duke Employee and Occupational Health and the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine ahead of most Duke employees, students and the public.

“All of this has been communicated regularly to the employees and documented by the Local 77 leadership, The Chronicle and others,” he wrote.

He added that Local 77 workers have had “secure employment, pay and benefits when many others at Duke and elsewhere have not.”

“The constant attempts by some individuals to misrepresent and in some cases fabricate the actions of the managers and supervisors who have worked around the clock for the past 15 months to support their employees and Duke students, under great stress and often at risk to their own health and safety, is beyond disappointing,” Schoenfeld wrote.

Steele did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In general, workers have been frustrated with the lack of communication from management.

“I do my job well, but I want to be informed. I want the proper information. I want management to sit down and come up with something comprehensive,” Williams said. “We can't gather in big groups, but we can have individual Zoom meetings and inform us on where we're at, what's going on, what's the next steps.”

Lettica Wolfe, a housekeeper on East Campus, said that she thinks it’s hypocritical that while Duke’s management uses the word “safe” for the work housekeepers do, the majority of those working in management have been working from home all year. She feels upset that the University dismisses workers’ safety concerns and acts like “everything is okay” and “everything is under control.”

“If it’s so safe, why do y’all still work from home then?” Wolfe said. “Just be honest with me. Don't be lying to us. Tell us the truth... I know everybody can't be home and I respect that. But don't lie to us. But honest to your workers and staff.”

She added that this act is frustrating because, aside from her supervisor and a few others who she appreciates, she has never seen upper-level management, including her director. (Leslye Kornegay, Wolfe’s director and director of university management services, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“Why don't y’all come and show y’all’s support?” Wolfe asked.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that although a group of students and workers created the petition, workers signed the petition and delivered it to the administration.


Mona Tong

Mona Tong is a Trinity senior and director of diversity, equity and inclusion analytics for The Chronicle's 117th volume. She was previously news editor for Volume 116.

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